Baobabs are a most important feature of Mapungubwe National Park. Management is under mounting pressure from ecologists and the public to find solutions to protect our Baobabs and river-forests of the bordering Limpopo River.
Baobabs are part of the historical-cultural landscape at Mapungubwe. They are found on many of the archaeological sites around the park, evidence that they played an important role in the lives of people here for the past thousand years by providing food and fiber for weaving and rope making. Archaeological artifacts from Mapungubwe hill include beads threaded with baobab-string and many of the Park’s trees show signs of ancient debarking for fiber.
Baobabs are still critical for the region today. Sales of the fruit support many hundreds of rural livelihoods outside the park. In the park they are an integral feature of the bushveld landscape and many old trees are tourist-attractions like the “Honeymoon” tree on the Leokwe-camp-road which has been heavily damaged by elephants, also by stripping the bark in the cavity of the tree.
Ecologically, baobabs are a keystone species that provide a habitat for dozens of bird -, mammal – and reptile species. This is especially important in the vast mopane veld of the Park where baobab trees are an emergent species and provide the only habitat to many of the faunal species here.
What can be done?
Many methods to protect Baobab trees exist and some have already been tried here; like placing beehives in trees, hanging chili blocks from branches and packing sharp rocks around trees. It is important to know however, that each area is unique and that the solution might be a combination of several methods.
Testing diamond mesh and fermented Elephant dung on Mapungubwe baobabs
In June 2021 the Park invited Baobab Ecologist, Dr Sarah Venter of the Baobab Foundation to test the diamond mesh method on the trees in the park. The Baobab Foundation is a Non-Profit Organization focused on research and conservation of baobab trees. The foundation bought mesh and with the help of Ranger Stefan Cilliers, wrapped 27 trees in diamond mesh in the eastern part of the park.
In addition, following a suggestion by an arborist, Mr Rian Van Zyl, who had been spraying baobab trees with fermented elephant dung to protect them from elephants in Botswana, the project added this treatment to the controlled evaluation. We were aware of how impractical the treatment would be for the park management, but we reasoned that, if it was found to be successful, it could be recommended as an alternative to landowners who did not want to use diamond mesh.
Testing results in November 2022 showed that the meshed trees had no fresh bark and wood damage. However, the proportion of sprayed and control trees with bark damage increased by 30% and 7% respectively and wood damage, by 35% and 17% respectively.
Spraying baobabs with fermented elephant dung did therefore not protect the baobabs in any way, in
fact it appears that trees that were sprayed, seemed to be more damaged than the control trees. We noticed that many of the sprayed trees had been rubbed with mud by elephants.
Our evaluation from 2021 and 2022 showed that wrapping baobabs in diamond mesh is a practical, low maintenance and long-term solution to protect baobabs against elephants.
The mesh is unobtrusive, many people only notice it when they are a few meters away from the tree. In dry environments, such as in Mapungubwe, baobab trees are known to be extremely slow growing, thus adjusting mesh around the trees may only need to be done every 10 years or so. Evidence from a growth monitoring plot at Skelmwater near Musina shows that trees with a girth of over 100 cm grew on average 3 cm in diameter in 10 years.
Costs of implementation
On average one tree uses one roll of mesh and costs about R1800 per tree – that was in 2022. Small trees only use a third of a roll of mesh and very large trees can use up to three rolls of mesh. The Honorary rangers based at Lephalale attended a training session in October 2022 on how to wrap trees in mesh and they have taken it upon themselves to raise funds and buy more mesh to protect as many trees as they can.