The power of totem animals | Global Ideas | DW | 07.04.2015
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The power of totem animals

Animals have long served as totems - or emblems of clans or families - that are sometimes considered to have magical qualities. Magic might not help conserve species - but could totemism perhaps protect biodiversity?

Photo: An eagle no a totem pole (Photo Source: cc/by/Emily Wise)

Totem poles featuring emblematic animals are a common sight in parts of North America

Huge wooden posts adorned with the carvings of fierce wolves, clever ravens and noble eagles dot the Pacific Northwest of North America. Many people are familiar with these posts - known as totem poles - as a feature of Native American culture. But not everyone knows that similar monuments displaying totem animals are found across the world - and are often tightly bound with spirituality.

Derived from the Ojibwe word "ototeman," a totem is an object - usually a plant or animal - that serves as the emblem of a family or clan, and as a reminder of its ancestry. The Ojibwe clan system, like many other Native American groups, was a system of government as well as a means of dividing labor, with each group having its own set of totems representing its duties.

Photo: Cranes flying (Photo source: Jussi Mononen)

Birds such as the crane are totems for certain Native American clans

For instance, the Nooke clan was responsible for defense and healing, and its totem animal is the bear - an animal that was considered a symbol of strength and thought to have curative powers. Birds, such as the crane or heron, are totems for the Baswenaazhi group, which acted as interpreters when different tribes met because they were said to be good orators.

Aside from North America, totemism was also common across Africa, India, Oceania and South America. Among the Nor-Papua in New Guinea, several groups are linked with animals - particularly fish - which are represented in various ways, including as spirit creatures in holy flutes or as figures kept at home.

Because the groups believe they are born from such totems, it is considered taboo to harm or kill totem animals - leading some conservationists to question whether totemism might be an effective tool for conservation.

Photo: Grizzly bears (Photo source: Carlos Osorio/AP/dapd)

It is considered taboo to kill or harm totem animals. Could this be a tool for conservation?

Could totems help in conservation?

Some conservation groups, such as the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), are looking to old cultural beliefs to supplement existing protection efforts. In 2010, the UWEC announced it would adopt Uganda's Buganda clan totem system to raise awareness of species in the region.

Former UWEC director Andrew Seguya said at the time that "people have forgotten this, but during the old times, the Baganda knew that it was a taboo to kill your totem or even to eat your totem. If we reinvent this, it may be a useful tool in our conservation."

More recently, Buganda Queen Sylvia Nagginda visited the UWEC sanctuary to lay a foundation stone for the construction of a home and exhibit for her cultural totem - the cane rate - alongside other animal and plant totems, as part of an effort to boost knowledge of species protection.

Some studies have looked into the link between religious and cultural beliefs, and found that totemism and taboos could help environmental conservation.

The study "Traditional beliefs and conservation of natural resources: Evidences from selected communities in Delta State, Nigeria" looked at the role of traditional belief systems in the conservation of natural resources in a number of communities on the Niger Delta. It concluded that tabooed species in those areas had high populations and were not endangered - although it is unclear whether the researchers controlled for other factors.

The Urhobos tribal communities in the Niger Delta have a tradition of environmental stewardship of tree groves based on religious beliefs and totemism, according to research published in July 2013 in the "International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation." Similar practices have been recorded in Ethiopia.

Photo: Hatching Pythons

A study in the Niger Delta found python populations are thriving where they are counted as totems

And in areas where the python is revered - for instance, among the Useifrun and Ujevwu communities whose customs stipulate the animal should be protected - populations are thriving, according to the study.

Are any animals or plant species considered totems or taboo in your country? Let us know if the comments section below.

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