ANIMALS play a significant role in many people’s lives; they form part of our totems, they provide meat and there is a belief that some of them intercede between our corporeal and spiritual world.
Thus, animals are special to African people in different ways.
For the BaTonga and their San or BaSarwa cousins, the eland has always been an animal with a spiritual significance for the whole tribe, while other tribes may not share this conviction.
The San Bushmen and the BaTonga regard themselves as ‘the eland people’ because of its spiritual significance in their lives; they believe the animal is an important unifying symbol for the surviving tribes in their lineage.
Archeological evidence attests that the eland‘s blood was a main ingredient in the paints used by rock artists in cave paintings and it is believed the animal had a spiritual connection with the artists’ work.
BaTonga elders say the depictions of the eland on the rock paintings reflect how the animal was seen by the BaTonga and San Bushmen painters while they were in a trance.
The BaTonga also believed they gained supernatural potency from the eland in the spirit world, further arguing the animal was one of the manifestations of the BaTonga and San ‘rain animal’ whose depiction relates to rain-asking ceremonies.
Because of these beliefs, the BaTonga and their cousins deify the eland and try to emulate its survival strategies in its natural environs.
For instance, in the semi-arid Zambezi River Valley and the dry Kalahari Desert where the BaTonga and the San live respectively, there is barely enough water in the dry season to support plant and animal life.
The tribes are sustained by digging up succulent tubers and roots that contain water.
This survival strategy was borrowed from the eland which can survive when the grass dries out and wilts during the winter season.
The eland can use its front hooves to dig up roots and tubers which, together with fruits, pods and seeds, form part of its diet.
A varied diet is thus key to their survival for they are not only grazers, but they are browsers too since they use their horns to pull down and break branches that would be otherwise out of their reach.
This behaviour is just like the nomadic San who survive in arid environs.
The eland can go for prolonged periods with little water, conserving moisture by passing concentrated urine and dry dung.
The BaTonga hunters utilise most of their energy during the day by walking and running for longer distances just like elands which allow their body temperatures to rise during the day, thus reducing the need to sweat.
The eland has the capability to prevent its body temperature from rising sharply and to retain heat during cold periods.
At night, elands feed mainly in summer and are most active in the morning, while during the day they seek shade under trees or patches of dense forest cover.
Apart from these characteristics, elands are also non-territorial, expansive and nomadic species; when food is scarce during winter, herds become smaller and scattered over a wider area, and these attributes have been imitated by the San.
This trait is more similar to the BaTonga and San hunters as they spread out in small groups in search of better hunts.
The eland bulls also leave the main herds and mostly form small bachelor parties, although the older bulls remain on their own.
As winter passes, the San hunting parties come together again bringing with them dried meat, tubers, roots and ostrich eggs for their kinsmen.
They hold ceremonies and feast on the dried meat while the
BaTonga also abandon their fishing camps to join their families.
This enables them to have more time with their wives and it is time to make babies.
Children were only born when there was sufficient food.
The eland herds also come together when the grass is most abundant and palatable, such as the time when winter passes into spring and on to summer from August through to February and March.
This major coalescence takes place during the calving season and it is uncommon to see herds comprising more calves and juveniles than adults.
A newly born eland calf can almost stand immediately and is able to follow its mother three to four hours later.
When the calf joins the herd at the age of about a month, it may try to suckle from any adult female, but a cow will feed its own offspring.
The San and the BaTonga have adapted this practice to their lifestyle as babies are kept under the care of a grandmother while the mothers do other chores like cleaning huts, cooking and washing.
On the other hand, the eland calves form nursery herds, forcing lactating females to remain together, and seem to be more attached to one another than they are to their own mothers.
They are seldom a few metres apart, lying together and playing. As the calves get older, this social bonding wanes and they become more independent.
Just like humans, by the time they become adults, the eland seldom approach within a few metres of one another, resulting in the widely scattered herds.
Any invasion into an individual’s space elicits an aggressive response.
Teenage fights are also common among the San and the BaTonga boys as the fights are mostly territorial.
For the eland, head shaking constitutes a threat display, which escalates into an upward jab with the horns if the intruder does not move away quickly.
Shaking the head while keeping it low signifies submission and will diffuse an attack.
In the human order, higher status is accorded to the senior and elderly men as well as strong young men who are able to hunt and provide for the rest of the community.
They are ranked and given powerful amulets to signify their status in the community.
Within the eland herd, higher status is accorded the older animals, with bulls out-ranking cows.
With ears erect to indicate their status, higher ranking animals move subordinates out of the way by striking them with their horns.
But interaction among the herd can be friendly; usually in the form of all grooming when one eland licks the head, neck or rump of another animal.
As the BaTonga males reach an age where they want to seek female companionship, elders are approached if one has identified a suitable female.
A meeting is arranged so that they exchange love tokens and a marriage is arranged followed by a dowry ceremony.
The eland bull, after having tested a female’s urine, establishes that she is in , BaSarwaoestrus; he will remain close to the female and drive away any subordinate males.
Courtship involves rubbing his head against her flanks and pawing the ground.
The bull also rubs his horns in mud where the female in oestrus has urinated, coating them with the smelly residue that is later rubbed off against the bushes.
Resultantly, mating takes place within the herd.
Adult herds avoid predation by going into patches of forest and thicker vegetation, whereas herds with young calves tend to remain in the open.
If calves are threatened, the cows form a tight protective circle around them.
The San are also protective of their young babies and children; there are cases where women have killed hyenas which tried to attack their young.
The striking similarities in character of the eland and the tribal people are a clear testimony of how people and animals can relate.
Perhaps this explains why they call themselves ‘the eland people’.