I’m unashamedly obsessed with all trees but there is one on Londolozi that is not only a firm favourite of mine but also of other humans, lions, leopards, baboons, monkeys and various species of birds too. We’ve watched various generations of the Tsalala Pride playing in its sturdy boughs and the Nyeleti young male, Nanga female and Tutlwa leopards lounging amongst its foliage. Even the worst climbing ranger has managed to shade themselves from the midday heat in this giant of a tree. Well, this was until just a few weeks ago, when we sadly found out that elephants are fans of this tree too…
The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.
An enigmatic female not often encountered, this leopard lives to the north of the Sand River.
It seems that termites had been eating into the limb of this tree and significantly weakened it so that when a herd of elephants had pulled down on it or rocked their weight against it, they’d snapped it off the main stem. When we first rounded the corner at Marthly Pools and saw it, I immediately felt sick and pretty swiftly went through the five stages of grief. First I went through denial, trying desperately hard to believe that what I was seeing wasn’t actually true, then depression struck when I realised the limb was well and truly severed and that there really was no way back. Bargaining kicked in with the wish that the herd had just not come through the area at all and then anger bubbled up at the sheer destructiveness of what they’d done.
When the acceptance phase slowly started to filter through a while later, I began to question myself. If destruction is a very necessary role elephants play in these habitats, should I be feeling so angry at them for just doing what they naturally do? Did this constitute destruction in the first place? And really, what was it that was bothering me so badly about this situation? Why couldn’t I just let things be as they were?
You see, I understand that in a natural system, where elephants are found in balanced numbers, they are crucial to maintaining a more open habitat. Areas where elephants are supposed to occur but don’t, tend to become heavily wooded and over-grown, something that affects the land, water systems and other creatures reliant on that land and water. In the Greater Kruger National Park, elephants help to maintain this natural mosaic but when too many elephants congregate in an area, this can also become a problem and habitats can be put under too much pressure. At Londolozi, particularly over the most recent drought, this is definitely a concern.
Apart from this, elephants do a great job of making food sources, normally kept too high up in the trees, available to the lower browsers by pushing over trees or pulling down branches. Kudu, nyala and impala will sometimes even track down a herd if they hear trees being pushed down in the distance, knowing that there’ll be tasty morsels left for them to feast on. Termites can also help to break down the pieces left in the wake of elephants and so in a sense, not a lot of what they ‘destroy’ goes unused.
Possibly then, the issue I had with what the elephants had done was my dislike for change. I had loved that tree and all the beautiful sightings we’d had on it and the times I’d spent in it and I was saddened by the thought that I wouldn’t get those opportunities again. I also didn’t like that it looked ugly. At the risk of generalising, I think this is another major issue humans have with these sorts of things. How we relate to aesthetics. But we’ve seen before that sometimes ‘destruction’ like this, despite not looking great, can work out for the better.
During the 2012 floods, the beautiful Fig so many of us had grown so attached to was dislodged from the bank of the Sand River and washed away to lodge against some granite boulders downstream.
People wrung their hands over this for days but then just a few months later, the Tutlwa female leopard took advantage of the exposed root system of the now dead tree and denned her tiny cubs there.
We all stressed about the unsightly nature of the river in the aftermath of the floods and yet three different leopards that we know of (Tutlwa, Nhlanguleni and Nkoveni females) used this ‘ugly’ debris to keep new cubs safe. Extensive reed beds were washed away north and west of Pioneer Camp but in their place a beach was formed. This inadvertently provided us with beautiful, unobstructed views of lions and elephants crossing the river in subsequent years.
When I look at it, I realise that the loss I felt in this situation was related to my sentimental attachment to this tree, the memories I have of it and that my experience of it in the future would be irrevocably altered. Ultimately though, as a human, I am actually the least affected by the modification that has occurred here. Realising this has helped me to remember that things in nature are in a permanent state of change and the sooner we come to accept things as they are in all aspects of our lives, the sooner we find peace.