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'Save A Tree' Campaign - Explanation & Update

There has been a positive response to the appeal to Members to participate in this project to protect certain tree species from over exploitation by an increasing elephant population.

Another four (X4) Marula trees were packed on Argyle.

The intervention is to place concrete pyramid type structures under the selected trees, the pyramids are spaced far enough apart to allow other species to walk between them, but not elephants.

I’d like to take this opportunity to elaborate a bit more on this project, and play devil’s advocate in some scenarios. I mention this because the pyramids are ugly, and we embarked on the programme when the veld was at its driest and “thinnest” – so there are Members who commented about the negative impact, and I appreciate this point of view.

One of my work challenges is how do I get to communicate with each and every one of you to explain certain management actions, interventions and rationale? Well, all I have at my disposal is the posting of this Monthly Report on the web site, and for those who visit the reserve during the month, the Gate Letter. Sending specific e-mails each time managements acts or embarks on something will clutter up your inbox and soon important messages will be overlooked. We like to reserve the privilege of direct e-mails for reminders of meeting dates, information evenings and special general meetings. At the end of it, I have to rely on Members and their families to please read my monthly reports, so you remain informed about management decisions and the rationale behind them.

Part of my conservation training and work experience has taught me to recognise subtle changes and shifts in the environment I work in and understanding the driving forces behind these changes. So, if I’m to be able to manage the veld correctly I need to be able to “read the veld” – for lack of a better term – and identify shifts or changes that may negatively impact on the balance of biodiversity. For example, it could be an increasing density of an indigenous problem plant, increased soil erosion, increaser grass species that are less palatable, and in recognizing these shifts management may prescribe acceptable limits of change to achieve maximum biodiversity. To achieve this there may well be some form of mechanical intervention.

So why the pyramids?

Natalie and I had our 4th Ingwelala work anniversary this month, and it would be irresponsible of me, employed as your reserve manager, to not point out that in the short time I have been a part of Ingwelala I see an increasing amount of tree damage from elephants, enough for me to be concerned. Our long term researchers advise us that in our neck of the woods elephant bulls favour Mopani veld, there may even be evidence to suggest this is what triggers their musth cycles. It is also documented that bulls push over trees as a show of strength to other elephants, often not even feeding from them. We all know the “numbers of elephants” for the Greater Kruger debate is massive, and whilst the acceptable ceiling (numbers) for elephants is not yet determined what we do know is that the population has more than doubled since the moratorium on culling and the available space for them has not doubled so you can expect more impact on the vegetation and it will increase exponentially as the population increases.

It’s not only about losing the large trees from the landscape, it’s also about sustaining the seed base, and ensuring recruitment and ensuring representative age classes from saplings to large established trees.

We have all this information at our disposal, do we act now or do nothing. In time we can easily pick up and remove the pyramids, we can’t in a second replace these trees.

I mentioned in my first reports on the pyramids that the ones near the fence road on Argyle were specifically placed there by conservation staff for easy access whilst they configured suitable spacing and effectiveness against elephant access. They were also looking at adding shades of oxide to establish better blending in of the pyramids (to be less visual). We chose this site because it was adjacent to a barrier (the camp fence) and so we expected interest in these trees once the fence redirects the elephants. Another documented point from researchers is that elephants use roads and tracks as walkways and so you might expect to see more impact along road verges, where you also have good tree recruitment because of channeled water run-off. In conservation circles you may have heard of the roadsides been referred to as a “hedging effect” Therefore, ironically, the most effective area to place the pyramids would be along the roadsides!

Other vulnerable areas, but that are also highly visual, are the few odd Marulas and Leadwoods around our artificial water holes. Do we wait for these to be pushed over, or do we intervene, pack the tree, and continue to provide shade for some, a landing site for birds and a seed base? Sure, we could use natural rocks and stones on this circumstance, but we need to understand that Ingwelala has no ready available rock collection point, and there are ecological considerations here too. Amongst these naturally occurring stones and rocks is a sensitive ecosystem of rock dwelling creatures that rely on this niche for survival. To uproot one community to protect another doesn’t make that much sense to me? It’s also far cheaper to build the pyramids, you need fewer of them and they can’t be easily rolled away like stones. There are other secondary impacts of unnecessary off-road driving to access these areas to collect rocks which damage plants and insect life.

So to summarise, what we are trying to achieve is this:

  • To maintain species biodiversity and to avoid any species vulnerability or species extinction
  • To conserve heterogeneity in the landscape
  • To maintain the vegetation in the landscape that is representative of this indigenous area
  • Through species biodiversity maintenance, promote a wider habitat use by other insects, birds and mammals, but not excluding elephants
  • To conserve, maintain and promote seed production
  • To ensure sufficient and sustainable tree recruitment to satisfy the above requirements

Conservation staff will site the pyramids as far away from the roads as possible to lessen the visual impact.

The Board is certain this intervention is necessary and I hope that in some way I have been able to communicate the factors and driving forces that are taken into account, and the various ecological considerations and debates. It is not an adhoc or uninformed decision and I trust you will understand and support the need for this temporary intervention.


by John Llewellyn