About This Project
Baobab trees in South Africa are a unique savanna feature. They provide crucial habitats for an entire community of animals. However, they are being destroyed by elephants in densely populated nature reserves To promote an initiative to protect the trees, this conservation project will document the endangered animals that rely on these trees for habitat to showcase their importance.
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What is the context of this research?
Elephants in densely populated game reserves are unintentionally killing baobabs by stripping the bark and damaging the tree trunks, as they find the bark to be a delicious snack. Some research shows that many animals make their homes in baobabs due to the unique habitat it provides in the savanna, as this is often the largest tree around. The elephant damage to these trees is leading to the loss of a unique savanna habitat that many animals rely on, including species like critically endangered nesting birds. We, therefore, need to investigate if elephant damage to these trees is detrimental to local animal populations and find ways to protect the trees without having to negatively impact the elephants.
What is the significance of this project?
Despite some research showing the importance of baobabs in the savanna, we mostly have no idea of the true extent of this keystone species' importance. Whilst some endangered species (like vultures) have already been recorded nesting in the trees, a full-scale survey in South Africa has never been done. This means we have no idea about the true number of animal species (mammals, reptiles, and birds) that depend on baobabs for habitat. This project is therefore not just helping to conserve the iconic savanna tree but the animals that rely on them too. We must prevent negative domino effects in the savanna landscape with pre-emptive conservation before a vital habitat is lost and animal populations are threatened even more.
What are the goals of the project?
The first goal is to do a full survey of all animals (mammals, reptiles, birds) that are utilizing baobabs (in at least 90 trees) for habitat (roosting, nesting, feeding, etc). Then, compare animals using baobabs to alternate habitats in the savanna (other smaller savanna trees). This will determine if baobabs are significantly playing a role as keystone habitats and for which animal species.
Secondly, model which baobab trees are the most important for conserving animals to determine which trees are a conservation priority for baobab protection management (which trees are most at threat from elephant damage). This will use baobab features (like size and location) and correlate that with the number of animal species that depend on the trees and the threat risk from elephants.
The 4x4 is needed for transport, from the University of the Witwatersrand to the study site in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa. It is needed to carry the ladder, rope, and pole for sampling animals living in the tall baobabs as well as deal with the rough roads. The equipment is vital for proving the ecological importance of the trees. The animals and birds are roosting/nesting in the high-up tree cavities (which may make these trees a unique and important keystone habitat!). Some of these are likely to be IUCN-endangered species too (many raptors for example). Without these surveys across seasons, we cannot get an idea of the true assemblage of animals living in these threatened trees. This will aid the conservation of the iconic tree species and the animals that rely on this threatened keystone habitat.
I have two years (2023 and 2024) to complete my Master of Sciences Thesis and it is through this rigorous academic approach that this conservation project will commence.
Three sampling surveys are planned for 2023. These occur in different seasons when different animals are likely to be found in the baobab trees. 2024 sampling will be planned at the end of 2023. Each survey will last 4 weeks.
Nov 27, 2022
Jan 11, 2023
Summer survey (peak wet season, lots of animal activity).
Jun 16, 2023
Winter survey for breeding raptors.
Oct 17, 2023
Spring survey (peak migration and breeding season).
Jan 01, 2024
Plan for repeat surveys in 2024, this planning will look at which seasons were most important or if other sampling times are recommended.
Meet the Team
I, a Master's student, am fortunate to be working with an amazing team of scientists. Prof. Ed Witkowski and Dr. Sarah Venter, are world-renowned baobab experts, having published many papers about this species. Dr. Venter is also hugely involved in the economic upliftment of rural communities bringing about positive change and dignity to people in poverty. Dr. Melissa Whitecross from Birdlife South Africa and Dr. Dave Thompson from SAEON bring their ecology and zoology skills to the mix.
I am currently a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. My passion for nature and wildlife has driven me to be involved with conservation. Since I was a small child, I have been fascinated with animals. My range of interests is varied. I grew up picking up shiny beetles to show my friends and spending hours photographing birds. I feel most at home when I am in the savanna listening to lions and hyenas at night, and fish-eagles in the day.
I am involved with various conservation projects. One such project is investigating how habitat fragmentation impacts forest and grassland birds. Another project I am completing is gaining novel insight into how invertebrates respond to a landscape under change. I like linking ecology and nature, with scientific models that are useful for understanding threats to animals.
This baobab project appeals to my love of botany and zoology and I feel like the work we are doing will be important for conserving endangered species. If we stand back and do not stop the damage that humans are causing to the environment, then future generations will not get to experience the joy that we have gotten from nature. That is a sad thought and I will not be part of the problem but rather help where I can to unite human upliftment with the preservation of the environment.
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