There were a few of us sitting around a campfire in the bush. We were all trainee rangers, so didn’t have the best tree knowledge out there. Little did we know that one of the logs we had selected for the fire was from a Tamboti tree –  a very toxic species – and the smoke from a burning log can make one very sick.

Once the fire was going strong we smelt something sweet, which didn’t seem right, and after inhaling the smoke we all started to feel very bad stomach cramps within a short space of time. One of us even got a blood nose! This was all purely from burning the Tamboti log. We all learnt the hard way what wood we should certainly not burn.

The amazing thing about the bush is that while we were made so sick by the toxins of the Tamboti, there are animals out here that snack on it like candy. Mother nature is always able to find a way.

One must always be careful when collecting firewood. Certain woods have toxic latexes in them, the smoke from which can be harmful.

While driving around Londolozi there are many prominent features guests inquire about and the big dead trees are a common source of discussion. The majority of the dead trees seen on the reserve have died due to being ring-barked, with elephants being the main culprit.

A few days ago however, I saw the same ring-barking in a Tamboti tree thicket, but the damage was at the base of the tree, so there was no chance of elephants being the culprits. This got me wondering which animal might have done this, as to my knowledge most other animals do not enjoy eating the bark of the Tamboti tree. I got back to my room and did some research to understand what could possibly be debarking these trees so low down, and after reading a few articles it became very clear…

As it turns out, it was the shy and rarely seen porcupine (at least they are rarely seen in this area) that had been doing the exact same thing as the elephants, and apparently these fascinating animals play a vital role in controlling the potential over-population of the Tamboti tree through their ring-barking. Tracker Shadrack Mkhabela would often point out that there were porcupine tracks moving across the road from the previous night but I had never thought of linking the two together. Although I knew their diet was comprised of roots, bark, plants, bulbs and various fruits I had previously assumed the Tamboti’s latex would be a deterrent towards the porcupine in the same way it is to other animals. This is not the case, as it happens. The porcupine and black rhino are two animals which are actually immune to the toxins secreted, allowing them to feed on the bark and leaves produced by this tree. Kudu and giraffe also feed on them to a lesser extent.

Porcupines’ teeth are incredibly sharp and have adapted to become very good wood cutters. They will eat the bark and the cambium layer, exposing the inner tree to other natural elements.

When guests think of coming to Londolozi they immediately think of the larger mammals and rightfully so, as the possibility of seeing the Big 5 is very high, but the ecosystem here is exactly that – a system – and everything, however seemingly insignificant, is interlinked, including the Tamboti tree.

Two Tsalala lion cubs play and stretch their ligaments at the base of a Tamboti tree. Here you can see how the chemicals released by the tree have created a sandy substrate where other flora and trees struggle to grow. Photograph by James Tyrrell

This is one of a few trees which perform something called allelopathy.

Allelopathy refers to the influence one tree has on another plant; it is a chemical warfare which occurs between certain species and is a biological phenomenon where an organism such as the Tamboti tree produces biochemicals that affect the growth, survival, germination as well as reproduction of other flora in the surrounding area. I find it incredible how all the flora and fauna are linked in some way or another as Peter Thorpe explained in his blog a few weeks backs.

Porcupines are nocturnal and will move around in the dark of the night in search of food, then return to their burrow during the day.

Then enters mother nature again… The porcupine can be seen coming out at night to gnaw on the trees bark to receive nutrients from the cambium layer. They have adapted to become quite the wood cutter; ringbarking the outer layer of the tree (including the all-important cambium) essentially removes its transportation system, thus starving the tree of nutrients and dooming it to a slow death. The porcupine therefore plays its small part by preventing the Tamboti tree from over-populating an area and encroaching on other flora, allowing for even more diversification of species to inhabit the ecosystem.

So next time you driving around the diverse landscape of Londolozi and you come across a Tamboti thicket at night, have a look for signs of the amazing yet shy porcupine. During the day, have a close look for the ring-barking of the trees and you will know mother nature and the porcupines are at work in the area.


Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Guy Brunskill


Guy grew up in the city of Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. From a very young age he visited the bush each holiday. It was during these early years that his passion and interest was ignited for this incredible environment. After school he acquired a ...

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on The Porcupine and the Tamboti Tree

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

I love reading the blogs that you can learn something from. Interesting facts Guy. I did not know porcupines eat the Tambotie tree bark. What I love about the Tambotie is the jumping beans in, is it August?

Darlene Knott

How very interesting, Guy! We have yet to spot a porcupine. Would love to see one!

Denise Vouri

Who would have thought innocently burning a log could make one sick? Really interesting article about the Tamboti tree and its most prevalent prey-the porcupine. I’ve only seen a few in the bush, but they are interesting creatures, albeit quite shy. Good to know you’re enjoying your new venture at Londolozi.

Callum Evans

Everything is connected in nature and nothing stays on top for too long.
Question: when I did the iMfolozi Trail back in 2015 we burned old logs from umThomboti (Zulu name) trees and I was wondering if they are Tamboti trees or a different species?

Kimberly Salzer

Okay, so you owe me a porcupine next time too, Guy!

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