ELEPHANTS AND MOPANE TREES

Every time we stopped, whether it was on walking treks or for tea or cocktails, we learned more about the region’s ecological balance and how it depends on elephants. Many tree species, such as the acacia, only sprout when they go through an elephant’s digestive system, which breaks down the hard seed hull. Elephants travel 25 to 35 miles in a day eating about 440 pounds of food and scattering seeds along the way. Elephant’s eating habit starts new trees that replace the ones they destroyed because they digest only about 40 percent of what they consume.

As I mentioned earlier, elephant dung is rich in nutrients. Without their seed dispersal, diversity, which is vital for continuing the natural life-cycle in the bush, would disappear. Elephant dung is the best fertilizer. Dung beetles roll up balls of dung and carry it underground to their burrows as food for their larvae, putting fertilizer where it will feed plant roots. Other creatures rely on the seeds in elephant dung, too, like ground hornbills, banded mongooses, vervet monkeys, baboons, and many insect species. Many invertebrates, such as beetles, ants, centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, crickets, spiders, and termites, live in elephant dung. Specialized insects grind the dung into fine powdery dust that adds nutrients to the topsoil.  I wanted to take some home for my garden. It would be dangerous to collect, difficult to carry, and even harder to explain to customs officials.

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We came thousands of miles to learn about this wildlife, but many students and villagers never make it into their national park because they do not have access to the required four-wheel vehicles and cannot pay the park fees at the entrance just across the river from their villages.

On this safari, I would learn that elephants create the abundant, lush savannas that grow in shimmering standing water after the heavy rains. Grasslands begin when elephants use their tusks to strip the bark off trees and eat it, killing the trees and leaving stark, often very tall, dramatic skeletons. Elephants must love mopane trees because they seemed to be the biggest stands of dead trees.

It seems wrong for elephants to destroy beautiful mopane trees, with their butterfly-shaped leaves that flutter in a breeze like living creatures, and replace them with short, jagged, gray tree stumps that fill the landscape with a look of destruction for acres. The first time I saw mopanes after elephants mowed them down, I was concerned. I thought they can't keep going like that; they will destroy the bush.

But further on we saw grassy meadows filling part of the South Luangwa Park created by elephants. I admired the herds of big, fat impala or kudu and zebras grazing in acres of savannas where the trees used to grow. On a more recent trip back to the park, I saw that some of the mopane trees that were reduced to three-foot heights just a few years ago had grown quite a bit. The mopane trees were growing back, and the elephants moved on to another area. Nature has a way of balancing life that humans cannot duplicate.

Written by Patricia Cole

An Africa Hope Fund board member for 7 years, Pat is a writer and a conservation activist. After traveling to Zambia, she became dedicated to helping Africa Hope Fund provide education to the next generation of Africans and ensure their future by protecting wildlife. Find Patricia on Facebook and Twitter, or on her websites www.writepatwrite.com and www.patmcole.com.

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Carol Van Brugen