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The Old Way and the New Way:

Interactions and Connections among San, Lions, and Elephants in the Kalahari

Professor Hitchcock discusses what we've failed to learn and respect and what we've too often replaced it with - "In March, 2012, Roy Sesana, a G//ana healer and a member of the organization First People of the Kalahari, came across a herd of elephants in his garden near Molapo in the Central Kalahari. Employing the principles of the Old Way, he talked to them and told them to leave, which they did. He did not employ New Way techniques to handle human elephant conflict such as problem animal control, having the elephants captured and relocated to another place. Instead, he simply talked to them."

Abstract: This paper assesses relationships between the San of southern Africa and two species of large animals: elephants and lions. Data are drawn from several San populations in the Kalahari Desert, including the Ju/'hoansi of northeastern Namibia and northwestern Botswana, the Naro of western Botswana and eastern Namibia, the G/ui and G//ana of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and the Tshwa of northeastern Botswana and western Zimbabwe. Several topics are examined, including the values and attitudes of San peoples in relation to these large animals, problems in human-wildlife conflict (HWC), challenges posed by the presence of elephants and lions to the livelihoods, lives, and infrastructure of San. The roles of elephants and lions in San culture, the media, state and non-government organization policies, and in the ecotourism and safari hunting industries are considered. Transformations over time in the types of interactions among San, megafauna, and large predators are assessed, as are the contradictions and complexities in human relations with, and beliefs about, elephants and lions.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who spent extended periods with Ju/’hoansi and G/ui San in the Kalahari Desert region of southern Africa beginning in the early 1950s, made some astute observations on the interrelationships among San, lions, and elephants. In her book The Old Way: A Story of the First People and a series of articles, she discussed the lives of San peoples as they existed prior to contact and then what has happened more recently.  Drawing on her own experiences and the extensive photographic record of her brother John, who documented the lives of the Ju/’hoansi of Nyae Nyae, Namibia, from 1951 to 2003 in his fascinating film A Kalahari Family, she highlighted what she called the Old Way, “the way of life that shaped us, a way of life that is now gone” (Thomas 2006:6).  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has examined ‘the old way’ and ‘the new way’ in detail (see Table 1). She highlights the importance of living on the savanna – and the Kalahari is in many ways a classic savanna ecosystem. As she put it (Thomas 2006:70) “This was what the Old Way looked like. Bushes and grass.”

When I first traveled to the Kalahari with a team of anthropologists to undertake field work in August, 1975, we were told by government officials in the capital, Gaborone, that it was dangerous to go into the Kalahari. When asked why that was the case, they said, “the Kalahari was filled with lions and elephants” which could cause us real problems.  What was worse, they went on to say, was that the Kalahari had people – Bushmen – who could turn into lions.  As I carried out fieldwork in the Kalahari over the next four decades, I kept hearing these kinds of stories. I learned from San healers that they would slip out of their skins and leave their bodies and would travel to places where people were ill. They would then heal them.  In order to speed up the process of travel, they said, they sometimes turned into lions, which could travel farther and faster and allow them to find sick relatives and friends more quickly. As Richard Katz, Megan Biesele, and Verna St. Denis (1997:25) put it in their superb book Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy, the transformation is such that the healers are lions.

In the Kalahari lions (Panthera leo) are generally considered to be incredibly dangerous. People do, however, joke about the fears that lions can instill.  Sometimes, it is said, individuals will turn into lions specifically for purposes of scaring their friends, which  causes a lot of hilarity when their friends realize that the marauding lion was actually their friend playing a practical joke (see also Katz, Biesele, and St. Denis 1997:25-26). Lions figure substantially in the stories and folklore of the Ju/’hoansi, /Xam, and other San (Biesele 1978; 1993; Marshall 1999; Szalay 2002; Low 2011; de Prada-Samper 2014; McGranaghan 2014). As Keeney and Keeney (2011:11) point out, ‘Bushman stories emphasize transformation and shape-shifting, where a man can become a lion, an eland can turn into rain, a feather dropped into water can suddenly become a whole ostrich, or a leather sandal can suddenly leap into becoming an antelope’.

Wilhelm Bleek’s and Lucy Lloyd’s classic volume, Specimens of Bushman Folklore (Bleek and Lloyd 1911), has stories of the relationships between the /Xam San and lions. Bleek’s daughter Dorothea spoke about /Xam healers and sorcerers turning into lions and other animals (Bleek 1935, 1936). Animals could also turn in to people. One way to tell whether lion is actually a person who has undergone a transformation is if the lion behaves abnormally. If one shoots a lion and it does not die, then it is assumed that that lion was actually a human being with great power. Lions are seen as potent beings, as gods. If people see a lion on a moonlit night, they take this as an omen.


Bushman healer in a  trance

Lions often hunt at night but they are also known to hunt during the day.  Lions will hunt on dark nights in grasslands, especially if the grass is not very long (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, personal communication, 2014). Human-lion conflicts (HLC) occur after the full moon when the moon rises later and later every night, which provides longer periods of darkness. Some of the most dangerous times for humans from lions at night are those when the moon is faint or below the horizon (Packer et al 2014). Lion food intake is higher during moonless nights (Packer et al 2014:2). Some Ju/’hoansi mention running into lions when they were out at night.  People tend to avoid places such as waterholes at night, just like antelopes and other animals, because of the potential for complex interactions with predators (for a discussion of the importance of water holes, predators, and other animals, see Crosmary et al 2012). There are people who say that the stories of people turning into lions were done mainly to scare other people and keep them from coming in to the Kalahari.  

Fire (/e: in G/ui and G//ana) is used for a number of purposes by San in the Kalahari Desert region. Fires are used for cooking, heat, and light at night, and as Polly Wiessner (2014) points out, fires also serve as important focal points for community discussions.  Many San realize that fires will not necessarily protect them from lions at night; in fact, many people who live in the Kalahari say that fires actually attract lions. When lions appear in or near their camps, the Ju/’hoansi may try and scare them off by waving burning branches, speaking to them loudly and evenly, urging them to go elsewhere (Thomas 2003:73).  People do use fires for protection, sometimes setting bush fires if they are being followed by lions, leopards, or other predators.  

Tshwa San also say that they sometimes use fire to chase lions or hyenas off kills so that they can scavenge the meat. Fire can be used to drive antelopes toward waiting hunters. Sometimes this technique is combined with the construction of a large pit trap (‘a hopo’) into which the animals fall and then can be dispatched by hunters (Schulz and Hammar 1894:124). At night, when the Ju/’hoansi or Tshwa San would wait for animals to come to pans to drink, they would have small fires in their hunting blinds to warm themselves, always being careful to keep the fires tiny so that they did not alert their prey (Brooks 1978; Crowell and Hitchcock 1978). Lions are nocturnal predators, and people, when they choose to go after game at night, tend to prefer to be in protected facilities such as hunting blinds if at all possible.

According to Chris Low (2011:300), the Hai//om San of northern Namibia described their neighbors the Ju/’hoansi as people who ‘own the lion’ because they live and work with lions. The Ju/’hoansi treat lions differently than any other animals, and, according to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, they know how to communicate with lions in positive ways (Thomas 1990, 2003, 2006). As Thomas (2003:74) asked, “What then was the secret of the Bushmen and the Bushmanland (Nyae Nyae) lions, in the relatively pleasant relationship which might best be characterized as a truce?’ The answer lay in part in in the ‘Old Way.’  The Ju/’hoansi in the 1950s were living entirely from the savanna, they had a relatively simple but sophisticated technology, and were organized in small groups, very much like lions. The Ju/’hoansi then were on a more equal footing with other species than they were once they owned livestock and kept dogs, which changed the relationships between people and predators substantially.

Another reason for the relatively peaceful relationship between people and lions in the Nyae Nyae region was that the Ju/’hoansi did not hunt the lions or any of the other large predators. This situation was different from the New Way in which shooting and killing is a prime objective of safari hunters (see Lindsey, Roulet, and Romanach 2007; Lindsey et al 2012).  The Old Way strategy of the Ju/’hoansi of Nyae Nyae can be contrasted with the situation the Botswana side or the border, where Ju/’hoansi live in the community of /Xai/Xai alongside Herero who over the past century have hunted lions with guns in order to protect their herds of cattle and goats .

When the causes of death of Ju/’hoansi in Nyae Nyae were recorded by John Marshall and Claire Ritchie (1984) in the early 1980s, they found that of 1,500 deaths, only 2 were caused by lions. Far more people had been killed by lions in the Dobe-/Xai/Xai region of Botswana, especially in recent years, according to Ju/’hoansi, Herero, and Batawana informants (based on fieldwork in the 1970s, 1990s, 2005, 2013). A suggestion was that people on the Botswana side of the border were less familiar with some of the lions that entered their areas.  It is interesting to note that the Ju/’hoansi on both sides of the border have great respect for lions. Some Ju/’hoansi claim that they are not afraid of large predators, in spite of the fact that they pose great risks to them and their domestic animals.

With respect to lions, the Old Way was one of peaceful co-existence (see Table1). In many cases, both Ju/’hoansi and lions occupied the same waterholes in Nyae Nyae. Both humans and lions are water-dependent. Ju/’hoansi had the option of moving to other waterholes if they found that they could not- co-exist with the lions there. Lions could do the same, but it would be costly for them.  As Thomas (personal communication, 2014) puts it, Better for both groups to live in peace if water is limited.

The New Way sees the relationships between lions and people as being more competitive. The New Way is a much more complicated set of situations vis a vis large predators than was the case in the Old Way. The New Way began with the incursions of groups from other parts of Africa (e.g. Central and West Africa) or from Europe (the outside) into southern Africa (see, for example, Mitchell 2013; Tabler 1955, 1960, 1966, 1973; Wilmsen 2003, 1997). Changes occurred in local socioeconomic systems along with these incursions, especially with the introduction of new technology (iron tools, domestic animals, agriculture, ceramics). There were shifts in social relationships among groups.  

In the New Way, some people had livestock, and they had to protect these animals.  In some cases, local people were incorporated into herding systems – managing livestock, watering them, and helping care for them.  Lions were more of a problem than they had been in the past, people said. In the New Way, predators were competitors. Ju/’hoansi in Botswana sometimes assisted Herero in going after problem lions or leopards, ones that had killed cattle, calves, donkeys, or goats. The Ju/’hoansi were given a gun and a bullet to ‘take care of the problem,’ as the Herero put it. The Ju/’hoansi, who were fine hunters, would get the lion, and it would be turned over to the Herero. The Herero, in turn, would  sometimes share the meat with the hunter but who would usually keep or sell the lion skin, which was worth a great deal of money.  The New Way was in full swing in the northwestern Kalahari as far back as two millennia ago, but it intensified with the spread of guns and trade in the region in the 19th century (Wilmsen 1989, 1997). The New Way saw non-San Africans and Europeans interacting with lions and elephants (and San) in new and different ways.

Today, the presence of lions can attract both hunters and tourists from the outside and this can, in turn, bring cash into the area.  In Nyae Nyae, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (formerly, the Department of Nature Conservation) has lions on the quota for safari hunters.  Two years ago, in spite of the fact that lions were preying occasionally on the herds and flocks of the Ju/’hoansi, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy council, which represents the 2,400 or so Ju/’hoansi, asked that lions be taken off the quota, thus allowing the numbers of lions in the area to increase.

One of the roles of Ministries of the Environment and wildlife departments in Africa is to do what is known as ‘problem animal control’ (PAC). When lions kill livestock or people, the wildlife departments send out game scouts (sometimes accompanied by local guides, some of whom are San) to hunt down and dispatch the ‘problem animal.’ Problem animal control is sometimes done by safari hunters during the safari hunting season who pay extra fees for the opportunity (Stuart Marks, personal communication, 2014). Another way to handle these animals is to dart them and then take them to other places where they are released (a process known as translocation). Such a strategy was attempted in the Nyae Nyae region in the past, where problem lions were captured and then taken by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to Khaudum National Park to the north of Nyae Nyae.  Such a strategy did not always work, according to the Ju/’hoansi, who said that these lions often came back to Nyae Nyae. Similar stories were told by Naro, G/ui, and G//ana in the western and central Kalahari.


Tsamkxao ≠Oma with a wounded cow attacked by two lions. Tsamkxao is the Ju/'hoan Traditional Authority or Nyae Nyae

It is interesting to note that the numbers of lions in the Nyae Nyae and Khaudum regions in 2013 were relatively low.  According to the ‘full moon counts’ of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism that were conducted in 2013, the numbers were as follows: Nyae Nyae: 4, Khaudum: 22. These numbers can be compared to those for elephants which were:  Nyae Nyae (24 water points): 2,417, and Khaudum: 2,446.  It is clear that the numbers of lions, keystone predators, are very low, which may explain the Ju/’hoansi’s recent decision to ask the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to take them off the hunting quota for the Nyae Nyae area.

In the Central Kalahari Game Reserve of Botswana, one of the largest protected areas in Africa, the Botswana government’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks was reported in 2011 to be bringing ‘problem lions’ in from other places outside of the reserve. They would leave them in Gugamma in the southern Central Kalahari Game Reserve where they would prey on local domestic animals belonging to G/ui, G//ana, and Baboalongwe Bakgalagadi. People who were interviewed by anthropologist Maria Sapignoli in October-November 2011 asked why the Botswana government did not put them elsewhere, releasing the lions away from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve communities. 


In 2007, according to the Leopard and Lion Research Project at Khutse, near Kaudwane, just outside the southeastern boundary of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, 20 lions were killed by people, some of them in retribution for losses of livestock. Similar numbers of lions were killed in the northern Ghanzi Farms region in 2011 and 2012 by farmers and by Department of Wildlife and National Parks personnel, according to members of Central Kalahari Lion Research (, accessed 26 November, 2014). G/ui and G//ana San were sometimes employed by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks as hunting guides and trackers to go after problem lions that had killed cattle on Ghanzi Farms in the past two years. In some cases, the San said, the wildlife department game scouts would ask them to move up close to the lion with them, and then they would hand them the gun to take care of the final stage of the process of problem animal control.

In 2014, an examination of the economic returns from the activities of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, including the operations of its Joint Venture Partner, SMJ Safaris, showed that Nyae Nyae Conservancy was the most productive in terms of income earned of all the communal conservancies in Namibia, which as of November, 2014 numbered 79, at nearly N$4 million (the exchange rate in November, 2014, was $N1 = US$.091, so the amount of income earned by Nyae Nyae in US dollars was US$364,538.68). Some of these funds were derived from a combination of safari operations, tourism, and craft production and sale.

There were 36 Ju/’hoan villages, most with functioning water points, in the Nyae Nyae area in 2014. Lion predation on Ju/’hoansi livestock in 2014 was reportedly down substantially from previous years. Many of the kills of livestock, dogs, and poultry were done by leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and jackals.  One of the reasons for the lower predation rates by lions, according to the Ju/’hoansi, was that they were spending more time in the field with their cattle and goats and were doing more close herding of their livestock. They were also taking the cattle out later in the day, thus avoiding what they called ‘lion hours’ which lasted from before midnight to 11:00 a.m. the next day (information from Axel Thoma, 2014). The Ju/’hoansi purposely did not take their animals out or walk from one place to another at night, especially on dark  nights when they knew the lions would be hunting.

When asked about lions in the past, the Ju/’hoansi would say that they were the ‘dogs of Nature Conservation’ and some of them said that they should be given guns so that they could shoot them (see the films A Kalahari Family [Marshall 2003] and Bitter Roots [Strong 2011] and interview information recorded by Richard Lee [2013]).Today, in the New Way, lions are tolerated in part, as some of the Ju/’hoansi say, because they bring tourists, and ‘tourists bring money.’

Elephants and San   

Elephants (Loxodonta africana), like lions, are the subjects of discussion and concern among the Ju/’hoansi and other San in the Kalahari.  Like lions, elephants can be ‘problem animals’ from the perspective of local people. Elephants are known to charge people and in some cases injure or even kill them, although this has not happened very often in the northern Kalahari region of Namibia and Botswana. One of the biggest problems people have with elephants in recent years has been the fact that elephants will sometimes destroy water facilities (borehole pumps, casings, and engines) in their efforts to get water. As water-dependent species, elephants need substantial amounts of water to maintain themselves (some 70-90 liters [18-26 gallons] of water per day, depending on the size and age of the elephant) (Moss 1988; Haynes 1991; Sukumar 2007). Places such as Etosha National Park in Namibia and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe are, in many ways, ‘water-hole driven ecosystems’ (Greaves 1996; Chamaille-Jammes et al 2014).  In John Marshall’s film A Kalahari Family some of the most powerful images are those involving elephants destroying water equipment in Nyae Nyae that the Ju/’hoansi and their supporters had expended so much energy and money to obtain. As one Ju/’hoan man put it in an interview in July, 2014, an elephant can destroy US$20,000 worth of investment in borehole equipment in less than a minute.

Much of the effort of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and its partners (such as the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia [NNDFN], the Kalahari Peoples Fund [KPF] and the Tradition and Transition Fund) has been expended on coming up with strategies to protect water points from the depredations of elephants. These efforts have ranged from the use of electric fences powered with solar batteries to the construction of walls around water points consisting of railway ties and large amounts of cement. Elephants are highly intelligent animals; they may receive a shock from an electric fence but they figure out quickly that they can break the connection simply by dropping a tree on the fence. They then communicate their successful access to the water with other members of their group who come from miles around to join them.

The destructive tendencies of elephants (from a human perspective) are not limited to their damage to water points. In Nyae Nyae elephants are known to raid people’s gardens and to come into the villages and consume the grass that is used for people’s houses and roofs. This was a major problem or San and their neighbors in Namibia, Botswana, and western Zimbabwe.  As Thomas (2006:298) points out, elephants in search of food also visit the few remaining mongongo (Ricinodendron rautanenii) and marula (Sclerocarya caffra) groves where they ‘vacuum up the nuts that once sustained the Ju/’hoansi.’  As the world’s largest terrestrial mammals, elephants are powerful competitors with the San.


In recent years, in spite of the large numbers of elephants in Nyae Nyae, there has been a decrease in human-elephant conflicts (HEC) over water. One of the reasons for this change is that the construction of water protection facilities has become increasingly sophisticated.  In addition, the government of Namibia has drilled and equipped boreholes in places away from the 36 communities in Nyae Nyae so the pressure on water points is dispersed. Unlike 2013, which was a drought year, rains were substantial in Nyae Nyae in 2014; as a result, the Nyae Nyae Pans and other pans were full and elephants were having a field day in the unusually abundant waters.

The numbers of elephants have expanded considerably since the 1950s when they Marshall family originally worked with the Ju/’hoansi. Thomas (2006:203) tells the story of a 70-year old man at /Gautscha who remembered seeing a herd of elephants. The Ju/’hoansi somehow disturbed the elephants, either by hunting them or going too close to them. As a result one of the elephants killed a Ju/’hoan man. This lesson was not lost on the people of /Gautscha: years later, when elephants reappeared, those who had seen the killing of the man would have described the event to other people, thus warning them of the potential danger. Similar stories are told by the Tshwa San in western Zimbabwe and northern Botswana.

Humans, as Thomas (2006:204) points out, are not the only species that depends for information upon its older members. The same elephants that had visited the pan at /Gautscha may have come there because of something that their oldest member – their leader -- remembered. She may have recalled the abundant water and browsing opportunities and that there were no ivory hunters there. As Thomas (2006:205) notes, elephant leaders are always females (see also Moss 1988; Payne 1998 and McComb et al 2001). If these powerful matriarchs are removed from the herds, the younger elephants often begin to act out, fighting amongst themselves and behaving erratically.

The rinderpest epidemic of 1896 97, combined with extensive hunting of large mammals by both Europeans and local people, led to a reduction in wildlife numbers in southern Africa.  Elephant populations in particular were disturbed considerably by hunters using guns in the latter part of the 19th century.  One response of the elephants was a tendency to bunch up in small mixed herds.  Without the leadership of the matriarchs, there was greater destruction of crops of local people who responded accordingly, shooting the animals on sight, especially if they were in their fields.

John Marshall (personal communication, 1987) said that when he and his family came to Nyae Nyae in the early 1950s there were no elephants. By the 1990s and early part of the new millennium there were over 1,000 elephants in Nyae Nyae, many of them refugees from herds that had been decimated by soldiers and guerillas operating in Angola and northern Namibia during the liberation struggle. These elephants were noticeably aggressive, charging people and vehicles and chasing other animals away from water points. The Ju/’hoansi, anxious about what they felt were dangerous elephants, the Ju/’hoansi said that the government should stop developing water points for game, as John Marshall pointed out in his powerful film A Kalahari Family (Marshall 2003).  Financial investments, they argued, should be directed to developing farms for the Ju/’hoansi.

The Ju/’hoansi are aware that under the new development programs of the Namibian government, elephants are an important part of a commercial safari hunting industry which generates substantial income for the country.  They are quick to point out that even though safari hunters from Europe or America may pay as much as US$75,000-US$100,000 to companies for an elephant license, relatively little of this money trickles down to community members.  Substantial sums do accrue to the conservancy councils such as the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and the N/a Jaqna Conservancy in the Tsumkwe District of Namibia.  The San note that even though the government and safari companies usually divide some of the elephant meat among people in the communities. However, some Ju/’hoansi do not like the taste or smell of elephant meat. They preferred the Old Way, when elephants were left alone and they left the people alone.


In some parts of the Kalahari, such as Thotoyamarula in northern Kweneng District on the border with Central District, Botswana, when elephants come across marula trees, they often consume substantial amounts of marula fruits, some of which may have fermented on the ground.  This can lead to what people have described as intoxicated elephants whose behavior is difficult to predict (Helga Vierich, personal communication, 2014). People in southern Africa speak frequently of the complexity of large mammal behavior, some of which they attribute to such material factors as diet, hunting pressure, or changes government policies regarding the ways in which elephants and lions and other animals are handled.

In Botswana, for example, a total hunting ban was imposed by the government in the country as of January, 2014.  This means that there is to be no hunting whatsoever in the country, including commercial safari hunting, citizen hunting, and subsistence hunting (Hitchcock and Sapignoli 2014). One of the questions that has arisen in Botswana is whether subsistence hunting licenses will be offered to those individuals who can demonstrate a significant degree of dependence on wild foods. Thus far, however, no such subsistence licenses have been issued in Botswana.  A second question is whether individuals who hold freehold or leasehold land can bring foreign hunters in to hunt in exchange for a fee.  No decision has been made on this issue, but there is evidence that some land owners and leasehold land holders are allowing foreigners who pay high prices to hunt on private and leasehold land in Botswana (none of the fees of which go to either the state or the communities).

A shocking event that occurred in September, 2013 was the discovery of dozens of elephants and other animals in the southern part of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe which apparently had died of cyanide poisoning.  Eventually it was determined that 135 elephants had died as a result of the use of the cyanide in at least 4 localities both inside and outside of the national park (Mabuko et al 2014:2). Ivory had been removed from some of the carcases. Subsequently there were arrests of people from Tsholotsho, a district to the south of Hwange National Park, Bulawayo, and other places for alleged involvement in the procurement, distribution and use of cyanide and for poaching.  The original targets of the arrests were Tshwa San, but it turned out most of the alleged perpetrators, some of whom were police officers, were part of a poaching ring that had connections with Harare, Johannesburg, and China.  Both Tshwa and Ndebele, who were living in areas close to the southern boundary of the national park were told that they had to move to new places far from Hwange.  They had not yet been informed of any relocation plans or compensation measures at the time we visited them in December, 2013 (Hitchcock, Begbie-Clench, and Murwira 2014).

One of the points made by San in the Kalahari is that they feel that they are excellent conservationists (Kiema 2010; see also Campbell 1977; Letsididi 2014).  By living in the Old Way, whose techniques they employed successfully for thousands of years, wildlife populations, at least to some extent, remained at sustainable levels, including those of lions and elephants which they did not hunt.  It is only in the New Way, they say, where one sees wildlife exploited for commercial profit, that one sees animal populations fluctuating or declining, and poaching becoming a substantial threat. Under the principles of the Old Way, people did not break the rules.  Meat, when it was obtained, was shared widely.  Nowadays, in the New Way, individuals such as safari hunters are not required to share meat or skins; if they get an animal, they can keep it for themselves and display their hunting success on Facebook or on their walls.

In the Old Way, animals were respected and people saw them as part of their natural, social, and spiritual worlds. People, predators, antelopes, and megafauna such as elephants and rhinoceros shared water holes, in part by visiting the water points at different times from the large mammals. Today, in the New Way, those water holes are often off limits to people, either because they are on private land or in protected areas. Government decisions led to the eviction of San from protected areas such as Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Etosha National Part in Namibia. In these areas, tourists get to enjoy the wildlife whereas the people who had occupied those areas for generations live outside of the boundaries, getting few benefits from the tourism and bearing many of the costs of predators and elephants destroying their herds and gardens.  

The cost-benefit ratio has changed completely in the New Way. While communities such as the Ju/’hoansi of Nyae Nyae and the !Kung and Khwe of N/a Jaqna do get some benefits from the commercial exploitation of wildlife, this is not the case for many San and other communities across southern Africa. The people of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, for example, had to go to the High Court of Botswana in order to regain their rights to live in the Central Kalahari, but were still denied the right to water and to social services (Sapignoli 2012).

In March, 2012, Roy Sesana, a G//ana healer and a member of the organization First People of the Kalahari, came across a herd of elephants in his garden near Molapo in the Central Kalahari. Employing the principles of the Old Way, he talked to them and told them to leave, which they did.  He did not employ New Way techniques to handle human elephant conflict such as problem animal control, having the elephants captured and relocated to another place. Instead, he simply talked to them.  The G//ana, G/ui, Ju/’hoansi, Naro, !Xoo, Tshwa and other San groups understand the significance of communication, information exchange, and learning lessons which are shared with other people (see Biesele 1978 for a discussion of these issues). The question that the San ask today is whether the principles of the Old Way can be used to inform people operating in the New Way about the importance of sharing the land, water, animals, and vegetation among all people instead of restricting the benefits to those who have the funds to pay for the privilege of interacting with lions, elephants, and other animals.

Acknowledgments:  Support of the research upon which this paper is based was provided by the Ford Foundation, the US National Science Foundation, Hivos, and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. The work of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, John Marshall, Claire Ritchie, Megan Biesele, Polly Wiessner, Maria Sapignoli, Arthur Albertson, Dries Alberts, Stacey Alberts, the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, the Kalahari Peoples Fund, and the Tradition and Transition has served as an inspiration for some of the ideas explored here.

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Table 1. Comparison of ‘The Old Way’ and ‘The New Way’ with respect to San peoples in Southern Africa

The Old Way The New Way
The old rules The new rules
Living entirely from natural resources Living from domestic resources
Hunter-gatherers (foragers) Farmers, pastoralists, and industrial systems
No domestic animals Domestic animals
No agriculture Agriculture
Self-sufficient Dependency on others
Savanna living Living in diverse environments
Seasonality important Much buffering against seasonal variability
Use of diversity of resources Use of a more restricted number and type of resources
Simple technology Complex technology
Subsistence hunting of importance Subsistence hunting of limited importance
No exchange with non-foragers Substantial exchange with non-foragers
Sharing and reciprocity Exchange based on monetary value
Egalitarianism Non-egalitarian systems
Gender equity Gender inequality
Conflict-resolution mechanisms include talking out problems Conflict resolution mechanisms are complex
Consensus-based decision making Hierarchical decision-making
Run down animals Use of complex technology to obtain animals
Every species is challenged to push to the extremes (Thomas 2006:30) Variability in adaptations and adjustments
Co-existence with predators No co-existence with predators except in zoos
Treat elephants with respect Elephants treated in complex, sometimes exploitative ways
Fire is the main way that the environment is manipulated Fire is discouraged except insofar as it is used to manage ecosystems and burn off wastes
Using traditional technology Using modern technology including high-powered weapons
Conservation as a major principle Exploitation as a major principle, conservation also practiced
Stability Instability


Table 2. National Parks and Game Reserves in Namibia

National Park or Game Reserve Date of Foundation Size (in sq km)
Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park (Fish River Canyon) August 1, 2003 5,086 km2
Bwabata National Park (formerly, West Caprivi Game Reserve) 2003 (1968-West Caprivi) 5,715 km2
Etosha National Park (formerly, Etosha Game Reserve) 1907 (93,240 km2) reduced in size in 1975 22,912 km2,
Kaudum National Park (formerly Kaudum Game Reserve) 1989 game reserve, 2007 national park 3,841 km2
Madumu National Park 1990 1,010 km2
Mahango Game Reserve 1989 244.6 km2
Mamili National Park 1990 320 km2
Namib-Naukluft National Park 1907 (1966-Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park) 47,768 km2
Skeleton Coast National Park 1972 17,400 km2
Sperrgebiet National Park 2004 26,000 km2
Waterberg Game Reserve 1972 405.5 km2
TOTALS 10 national parks or game reserves 201,030.1 km2

Note:  Data obtained from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Namibia,

Robert K. Hitchcock, Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001, USA,

Paper prepared for a panel entitled ‘Animals: Valuing Existences and Extinctions’, Stephanie Rupp, Organizer and Chair, 113th annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), Washington, DC, December 3rd -7th, 2014.