Sunday, July 24, 2005

Lions and Elephants in Ethiopian History, 1

Addis Tribune -- Ethiopia over the centuries has witnessed numerous great transformations.

The one we focus on this week relates to wild life, and in particular to the king of beasts, lions, as well as to the largest of animals, elephants.
Much Respected

Lions in Ethiopia in former days are believed to have been immensely respected. This can be seen from the medieval appellation of the Ethiopian monarch as the Lion of Judah. Ethiopian rulers had in fact a high regard for these animals. Emperor Lebna Dengel when on his travels, in the early 16th century, was reported to be preceded by several such beasts. The Gondarine monarchs in the centuries which followed had a lion cage. Emperor Tewodros, in late 19th century was depicted seated with several apparently docile lions around him. He and his predecessors and successors had lions engraved on their seals, Menilek, in 1894, likewise introduced them on to both his currency, and his postage stamps.

What about actual, as opposed to the ritualistic or symbolic, lions?

Lions were feared as wild and dangerous beasts. Hunters who succeeded in killing them - and other large animals - were highly honoured, and allowed to wear honorific ear-rings, while lion's hair formed part of the decorative, and very prestigious, cape and head-dress of great warriors.
Until the Coming of Fire-arms

The presence of lions is mentioned by many foreign travellers to Ethiopia, and it is probable that their numbers did not change greatly until the coming of fire-arms, which led, as we shall see, to a revolution in hunting methods. It was this revolution which led to the rapid disappearance of lions and other animals throughout most of the country.

This destruction, or elimination, of wild life, was in historical terms relatively recent. Early in the 19th century the British traveller Henry Salt reported an abundance of lions, notably in Wajarat, in southern Tegray. The French Scientific Mission of the 1840s drew a similar picture, while the Italian missionary De Jacobis shortly afterwards noted that the Marab river valley was "infested", as he wrote, with lions.

Lions were also undoubtably widespread in the south and east of Ethiopia. The British naval officer Cruttenden for example observed in 1848 that such animals during the dry season were "commonly seen" near the town well at Berbera on the Gulf of Aden coast.

Wild life, including lions, declined rapidly, however in the decades which followed. The German traveller Theodor von Heuglin, who visited the northern provinces in 1853 and again in the early 1860s, reported that big game on his second trip was far less plentiful than on the first, and that one seldom as before saw old animals.

Further to the south of Ethiopia the destruction of wild life developed a decade or two later. Lions were thus still to be seen in Shawa at the end of the 19th century. The British traveller Captain MS Wellby reported in the 1890s that the lowlands around Zeqwala, the mountain monastery situated within sight of modern Addis Ababa, was still "looked upon as the home of many lions". Present-day observers may now find this difficult to believe - though there was an occasion during Haile Sellassie's time, we are told, when a lion appeared at the Addis Ababa airport!
Diffusion of Fire-Arms

With the increasing diffusion of fire-arms, which we will consider shortly, prides of lions in most parts of the country rapidly disappeared. This made lion-hunting in the northern and central provinces increasingly difficult. The Italian author Tedesco-Zammarano noted in 1919 that the lions, which had thirty years earlier been seen in the Lamalmo area, in the north-west of the country, had by then disappeared, on account of hunting. He was perhaps unnecessarily critical of the animals which survived: Ethiopian lions, he declared, were "more wary and cowardly" than those in other parts of Africa, with the result that hunting in Ethiopia was difficult.

If we can equate waryness with cowardice may be a matter of debate, for wariness my be considered a virtue, and it is surely not cowardice for an animal to avoid being massacred with a gun.

The fate of elephants in the 19th and early 20th centuries was, it is sad to say, equally dramatic - and for the animals themselves, tragic.

Highly prized both for their tusks and in ancient time for their role in war, these animals had long been exploited by man. Animals from what is now the northern region of Ethiopia (and of course to use modern parlance Eritrea) were captured, and shipped Egypt by the Pharaohs in specially constructed boats several centuries before the Christian era.

The survivors of those animals continued to roam the northern provinces in ancient Aksumite times, and, according to the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, could sometimes be seen even at the Red Sea coast, near the old port of Adulis.

Ivory, obtained from elephants killed by traditional means, with knives and spears, or dying of natural cause, was a major export of the Aksumite empire, as well as of the medieval and post medieval Ethiopian state. The local people in places richest in elephants, were very skilled, according to ancient Greek and later records, in slashing the leg tendons of these huge animals, after which they chased them on foot, and fairly easily slaughtered them with spears.
Ivory Exports

Ivory exports from the Ethiopian region were significant throughout the historic period. Ethiopian, and indeed African, ivory was highly regarded as the elephants of Ethiopia, and Africa, had considerably larger tusks than those of their Indian cousins. Ethiopian ivory was thus long exported to the Indian sub-continent, which constituted a major region for ivory imports.

The importance of ivory exports is well documented in the Periplus, as well as in innumerable later writings.

In the early 19th. century, when documentation becomes infinitely richer, we find Henry Salt reporting that a "very considerable quantity of ivory" was procured from the northern Ethiopian provinces, most notably Walqayt and Shire. A generation or so later the French Scientific Mission of the 1840s reported that extensive hunting was then taking place in numerous areas of the country, including Addi Abo and Seraye, both in the north, as well as the Taltal country in the west, and the Oromo lands to the south. The principal markets for ivory included Gondar, Dabra Abay, Antalo, and Aleyu Amba. Two other French travellers of this time, Pierre Ferret and Joseph Galinier, also reported that ivory was also being transported from Enarya, as well as what they chose to call the country of the Shanqellas.

Ivory, according to the French Scientific Mission, was in many instances purchased in advance by traders, who paid for it before the elephants were actually killed.

There was also a demand for elephant hides, which were was used in the manufacture of shields.

Travellers to northern Ethiopia at this time tell of large caravans of ivory going down to the coast. The British geographer Charles Beke saw 75 mule-loads of ivory at Kararo near the Blue Nile .The French Scientific Mission saw twelve caravans at Adwa, with a total of 800 mules laden with ivory bound for the Red Sea port of Massawa, and reported that a further forty loads had been taken by other routes, through Antalo and Seraye. Yet another report told of 300 mule loads being carried through the Shawan market town of Aleyu Amba to the Gulf of Aden ports.

Annual ivory exports via Massawa were estimated by the German, Wilhelm Ruppell, at 300 tusks, valued at 6,000 Maria Theresa dollars, in 1838; by the Belgian Edouard Blondeel, at over 15,000 kilos, worth 32,000 dollars, in 1840; and by the French Scientific Mission, at almost 30,000 kilos, in 1842. Exports via the Gulf of Aden ports would seem to have also been considerable, as evident from the Frenchman Rochet d'Hericourt's estimate that shipments through Berbera were estimated by at around 40,000 kilos in 1840.

The mid 19th century - and the decades which followed - marked in fact a cruel time for Ethiopia's elephants.

(To Be Concluded)

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