I’ve often driven beneath the massive canopies of trees, and after scanning the main branches looking for a leopard and not finding one, felt disappointed and muttered, “there’s nothing there.”
I could not have been more wrong. Africa is home to many iconic animals that people travel from all over the world to see. Survival here for these animals is a competition, where only the fittest survive. For many people, the hope is to witness this struggle for survival between predator and prey – lion and buffalo, leopard and impala. However, there is much more to the African savannahs than the ongoing battles between predator and prey. Here, the soil is a foothold to some of Londolozi’s most iconic trees. For many of the animals of the savannah biome, these trees form an integral part of their lives, and some cannot even exist without them.
In this five-part series, I hope to instil a deeper admiration and appreciation for Londolozi’s Trees of Life and the animals that depend on them.

The giant trunk of a sycamore fig growing on the banks of the Sand River dwarfed those who stands beneath it. This fig was washed away during the 2012 floods when the Sand River burst its banks, but it would have provided many animals, both big and small with food and shelter for many years.

The first is a tree that is set apart from many at Londolozi. It is a tree that can reach heights of up to 20m. Its greenish-yellow bark, large green leaves and pale red fruits make the Sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) unmistakable.

Little Bush Leopard Cub Sycamore Fig Jt

Leopards aren’t often seen up in Fig Trees, but when they are, the sighting is usually pretty spectacular, as this female and her cub demonstrate.

Over hundreds of years, these trees form holes in their trunks which provide homes for bats, tree squirrels, mice, snakes and other reptiles, and in one case, even a warthog. In a single morning, Elmon Mhlongo and I witnessed a myriad of animals feeding on the fruits of a single gigantic sycamore fig in the southern parts of Londolozi. In the upper canopy, green pigeons, black headed orioles and purple crested turacos were feeding on the fruits that grow directly off of the main branches. They were not alone. A troop of baboons which had spent the night sleeping in the safety of the canopy were also feeding off of the ripe red fruits. As they would pick off the fruits, they would drop some accidentally, to where far below, eager mouths awaited. A group of nyalas were waiting patiently at the base of the trunk. They were soon chased off by a young elephant bull who was also feeding on the fruit. Sycamore figs have an extensive root system and the stems for flattened buttresses, which make it near impossible for elephants to uproot these trees. However, this doesn’t stop them from eating the fruit, or from reaching as high as their trunks will allow to relish the large green leaves.

Elephants and fig tree

A breeding herd of elephants feed on the fruits dropped from the high branches of a fig tree, although a knobbly fig in this instance.

These trees never seem to flower. In fact, their flowers are enclosed inside the fruits so we never see them.
It is inside these fruits that the survival of the fig and one other species is also ensured. These species cannot live apart from each other, but could not be more different. One can withstand water from a raging river, the other could drown in a single droplet. One lives for centuries, the other for sometimes less than an hour when mature.

A small fig wasp (there are many different species from the family Agaonidae) lives inside some of the fruits and is essential to the survival of the tree. A pregnant female wasp leaves the fig through a tiny hole in the fruit, and flies to another tree, where she crawls in through the same hole created by anther wasp. She will need all her strength to crawl down into the fig, transferring all the pollen from one flower to another, ensuring the survival of the tree. When she reaches the middle of the fruit, she lays her eggs. After the larvae hatch, they eat the pulp of the fig and develop into adults. The males will never leave the fig. He pierces a small hole through the fig to reach the female and fertilizes her, and then dies. She escapes, and the cycle continues.
The gases released while the wasps are inside the figs prevent the fig from ripening, so the baboons and birds ignore these green fruits, which ensures the process can be completed. However, when these fruits are ripe, all of these animals will eat the fruits, and disperse the seeds.

Looking up into the branches of this magnificent sycamore fig. Nothing happening in there? I think not.

Elmon and I did not know this at the time, but we were witnessing the entire cycle right in front of us. In their spectacular documentary “Queen of Trees”, Deeble and Stone poetically describe what we had witnessed as follows:

Somewhere in Africa, where a bat perched or an elephant came to drink, there will grow a fig tree. In a few years it will sprout its first fig, and the scent from that tiny garden will touch a tiny wasp, which will follow the scent up wind. Once again, the two will live together and continue the extraordinary relationship that has provided for so many, for millions of years.

Filed under Wildlife


on Londolozi’s Real Trees of Life – The Sycamore Fig

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

Fantastic blog Shaun. I love trees. This article is so interesting. I did not know about the wasp. Nature never seize to amaze. Looking forward to more tree stories.

Joanne Wadsworth

When I saw the wide, multiple branches of the Fig Tree I was amazed when you said that leopards rarely climb them. Seemed like a perfect place to hoist up a kill or take a needed nap on a wide, sturdy branch. I assume, Shaun, that this doesn’t occur often is because there are either fewer Fig Trees or the tree is so attractive to other animals that it’s not appealing to the leopard. Can you clarify? I’m curious. Thanks!

Kari Pearson

Such an interesting article Shaun – nature continually teaches us and we learn something new each day we spend in the the bush

Callum Evans

I love these trees so much, they really are The trees of life in the bush!

Keith Fincham

G’day Shaun, Great to read your article. We loved the time we spent with you and Elmon October 2017. Your passion, knowledge and insight amazed us all then and it shines through in your post on the Fig Tree. BTW did you get the email invite to Dropbox I sent a month ago with the photographs for you and Elmon to download. Please give him our best as well and keep doing what you two lads do so well to keep the magic alive. We still talk about that last night under the Milky Way. Best regards from the whole team, Keith

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