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 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.
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.
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.
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.”