Culture meets science


Fortunate Mafeta Phaka, author and PhD candidate in environmental science at South Africa’s North-West University and Belgium’s Hasselt University, has a keen interest in the relationship between biodiversity and indigenous cultures…

A rural upbringing afforded me a lot of time outdoors exploring the veld surrounding our village. My fascination with wildlife grew each year and by the time I reached university it was clear that I would join the environmental sciences stream. From the start I noticed similarities in the sustainability concepts being taught during lectures, and the rural ways of life and cultural knowledge passed down by my elders. For instance, I had practical experience of allowing livestock to roam free and growing crops without chemical pesticides or fertilisers long before I knew they were concepts you could dedicate a career to.

Fortunate Phaka. Photo: Marius Swart

I also noticed that people, especially traditional societies and their cultures, were mostly excluded from conservation.

This seemed odd as I learned that conservation is meant to benefit both people and wildlife, and from personal experience I knew that conservation ethic was enshrined in the cultural teachings contained within some of the praise songs that South Africans use for their clans. There are also examples of places like Lake Fundudzi and the Modjadji Cycad Forest where wildlife has been protected through cultural knowledge systems.

At the early stage of my university career I could only ponder the inclusion/exclusion of people from environmental matters and the relationship between our culture and wildlife. By the second year of postgraduate studies I had acquired enough research experience to explore my culture versus wildlife curiosities, and include people in the process.

I conducted research under a concept called biocultural diversity – a blanket term used in reference to the complex link between people’s cultural diversity and biodiversity. I focused on frogs and reptiles as they are underrepresented in South African biocultural diversity research, yet they are significant to local culture, as shown by their inclusion in cultural elements such as folklore and traditional medicine.

Fortunate list of indigenous names for each of South Africa’s
130+ frog species.

My study of the biocultural diversity of South African frogs and reptiles explores cultural naming systems, traditional ecological knowledge, gastronomy and the culture/biodiversity relationship in urban environments. One major finding from this research is that traditional societies name and group frogs in a similar way to scientific naming and classification systems. This has initiated a process to compile a comprehensive list of indigenous names for each of South Africa’s 130+ frog species. The list will
later be extended to include the country’s reptiles.

The research uncovered that not all folklore is mere lore. In some cases it is an attempt to make sense of observed animal behaviour. Without an understanding of amphibian biology, a frog that is repeatedly seen before a rain event may be thought to usher in rainfall. With an understanding of amphibian biology, the frog activity before rain will be understood to be prompted by humid and cooler conditions, which precede rainfall and also happen to be favourable conditions for frogs.

This folklore is shared with me during discussions with various cultural groups; they help me learn how people relate to frogs and reptiles. The lessons in turn shape research outputs specifically aimed at those outside the environmental sciences field.

The first of these outputs is a book about the frogs of Zululand written in isiZulu and English. The book includes the Zululand community’s perceptions, curiosities and inhibitions about the frogs in
their area.

Fortunate holding a frog. Photo: Forunate Phaka

Greater research could possibly reveal ways in which culture can be harnessed for more effective wildlife protection. As one community member said during a discussion, “My actions are only illegal if I get caught, but culture is always a part of you and makes it difficult to hide your transgressions.”


Written by Fortunate Phaka,

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