The Fall of the Great Baobabs

Written by Ryan Mizzen 

Research released earlier this month showed that some of the largest and oldest baobab trees in Africa died within a 12 year period. For trees that have lived for millennia to suddenly succumb over such a short space of time and in different countries, suggests that a major cause may be to blame.

The research paper in Nature Plants listed climate change as a potential suspect, but also noted that further research was necessary. Recently I interviewed Adrian Patrut from the Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania, who co-authored the research paper. He explained that “southern Africa is one of the fastest warming areas worldwide. We suspect that an unprecedented combination of temperature increase and extreme drought stress were responsible for these demises”.

Taking one example of the Chapman’s baobab in Botswana, Patrut went on to explain that it produced leaves and flowers well before the rainy season started, depleting its water reserves so that it wasn’t able to support itself and collapsed in the space of a day. He also noted that the rainy season had started later than usual that year. These weather extremes and shifting rainfall patterns are set to become the new normal as a result of climate change, putting more of our flora and fauna at risk.

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The reason why the loss of these baobabs is so concerning is because these trees are renowned for being particularly difficult to kill. When the inside of baobabs are burned by fire, they’ll continue growing. When bark is stripped away by large mammals such as elephants, they’ll grow new bark. For climate change to have killed them sends a very worrying message.

When we lose our great trees, we also lose part of human history. Baobabs are regarded as sacred trees by certain tribes and used for ceremonies and other tribal traditions. In West Africa, important meetings would take place beneath baobab trees to resolve conflicts. When these trees go, so do the customs and folklore that have grown with them.

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to life on this planet, and there is a sad irony that baobabs which are known as ‘the trees of life’, are amongst the first casualties. Unless we wish to see more species heading for a similar fate, then we need to urgently reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to meaningfully tackle climate change. We stand to lose more than we may realize if we fail.

May was for babes!

It seems that the month of May was definitely a ‘baby’ month in South Africa! Although there were a few cubs seen last month, it has definitely continued and even improved. We knew last month that the one Ottawa female had dropped her cubs, but they were too young to come out of the den. On the 10th May they finally made it out and have been providing fantastic viewing since then.

They are super-relaxed and are already giving the mother a few headaches when she wants to sleep and they need a drink of milk! Their aunt is also not too keen on the new arrivals, and shows them a clean set of teeth if they get too close to her.

There are also many tender moments that melt our hearts, but remind us that we should not mess with the mother at all!

Tlangisa has also brought her two cubs out for the first time this month. She has chosen the same den in the north that she had used the last time and it is just perfect for leopard cubs. There are plenty of rocks to play on and a few very good climbing trees to practise their skills on, yet at the same time plenty of cover for the youngsters.

As we have mentioned so many times in the past, the attention and care that Tlangisa bestows on her offspring is remarkable. She is still one of the most fantastic mothers we have seen, and the obvious joy she exhibits when playing with the cubs is a privilege to watch.

The hyena den also provided some great viewing during the first few weeks of May. They seemed to have moved during the latter part of May, but hopefully we will find this den soon, as the two cubs are still very young.

Baby elephants are always a major hit and this month we have witnessed quite a few youngsters and some newborn calves that have just managed to get the hang of walking!

Those who have managed to get full control of all of their limbs, under the watchful eye of the mother, soon become cocky with the Land Rovers and seem to attempt to protect the herd all on their own!

Thanks to the wonderful support of many of the guests and the incredible dedication of our anti-poaching team, as well as the hard work from all of the Sabi Sands staff, our rhino population is well protected. The results are showing and we are privileged to see the next generation flourishing here as well.

We were even blessed to have a female cheetah and her two youngsters arrive here for a few days! It has been quite a number of years since we have seen a female cheetah, so one can imagine the thrills and excitement during these few days. Unfortunately, they did not stay very long and the few that saw them were very privileged indeed.

When there weren’t any babies involved, quite often the act of making babies was witnessed! This was particularly true of Ravenscourt who was seen mating with Basile on a few occasions. She is definitely ready for a new litter, having lost two litters already. Hopefully, she will soon be able to raise her first litter to adulthood.

On the lion side, the Majingilane males have all succumbed or disappeared and, as expected, it didn’t take long for the void to be filled. Without the roaring of dominant males, the Matimba males from the east quickly moved west in search of space and females. Although these two brothers are also getting on in life (they are approximately 13 years old) they have taken over the area with confidence. They are strolling around as if it has been theirs all along, and vocalising regularly, announcing their presence to the wild.

They quickly found the Ottawa female with no cubs and wasted no time checking her reproductive status. The Flehmen grimace is used to waft the chemicals found in the urine across the vomaronasal organ, which in turn allows the male to ‘test’ her reproductive readiness. Sadly, as these males are pretty old already, it is very unlikely that they will be able to sire and successfully protect their cubs to independence.

The remaining nine Mhangene sub-adult lions have continued to surprise us and hold on, despite the odds against them. Although a few of them are looking pretty good, the smaller and weaker ones are still in need of a good meal. They are truly nomadic, moving as far south as the Sabi River and back again. But the good news is that if they get through this, they will truly be a serious pride to contend with!

We mentioned the female cheetah with cubs earlier, but they were not the only new arrivals for May. We seemed to have a sudden influx of new cheetah this month. A new relaxed male pitched up in the south around Savanna, firstly with a young waterbuck kill, and then a few times after that. He is very relaxed and hopefully will stay in this area for good!

However, it didn’t take long for the regular male to pitch up and he was clearly aware that a new male had arrived. He very quickly followed the same routes as the new male, and scent-marked profusely in an attempt to discourage the newcomer. He was always very alert, focusing continuously on his surroundings in case he spotted him. On one occasion, we were fortunate to see the old male take a break from his territorial marking and successfully chase down and catch an adult male impala.

Two young male cheetah who had clearly just become independent also arrived briefly in May. This brought the total number of cheetah seen this month to seven different cheetah! These two youngsters were clearly nervous of their new environment and were initially very skittish of the vehicles. After a short while, however, they relaxed quite significantly.

With elephant, it is not only the cute young calves that attract all the attention. What makes elephants such remarkable and fascinating creatures is their many similarities to humans. The bulls that are found in small bachelor groups, learning from one another and acting cocky and brave, or the older single mammoths that walk by so close to the vehicle that you can smell them, all make for breath-taking experiences.

And then you get the huge herds, filled with individuals of all ages, from grandmothers and aunts, through to the various teen years and all the way down to the clumsy calves, learning from their elders. This is very much how we humans used to enjoy the massive family get-togethers over the holidays. Please click hereto see a short video of a massive herd of close to 120 elephants!

Of course, the usual leopard viewing has been up to its usual high standard, excluding the cubs! When Basile is not gallivanting with the resident males, she is posing perfectly on large boulders!

Her sister, Khokovela, is also becoming a force to be reckoned with, and has for all intents and purposes completely displaced Xikavi. She is now owning her territory around the river, and is heard vocalising regularly.

After all the pressure Dewane has been under from Ravenscourt and Nyelethi, he is somehow still holding on to a portion of his territory along the river. He is also still looking pretty good, despite some superficial scarring from his battles last month.

It was also interesting to see Torchwood again after a very long absence. He has settled into his new territory in the concession east of us and has apparently been doing very well. He has obviously grown in confidence and is looking really good! It will be interesting to see how his territory shifts and grows as he gets older and more confident.

Some of our youngsters who have recently become independent have also been giving us some good viewing. Euphorbia has been moving a little further south, away from his mother Hukumuri’s territory. He is now two and a half and filling out well. He was seen recently with a duiker kill hoisted in a large Marula tree.

Tlangisa’s young independent daughter, Sasekile, has been seen a few times in the north. It is a long way to get up to the area she frequents, so it is seldom that we find her, but when we make the trip north it is always worth it. Being the daughter of Tlangisa, she is extremely playful as well, and loves running up and down large trees.

As always, the viewing of the general game has been just as great. When stopping to sit with some of the more common species, one always finds something special, such as mating hippo, an impala catching a ray of sunshine or a posing journey of giraffe!

And then there are the rare animals which often excite the guides more than the guests! Guests that return, however, have usually learnt which of these are seldom seen, and share in our excitement. One of these species is the Serval which was seen late afternoon one day and was especially relaxed! We spent quite some time with it as it hunted in the long grass.

Summer is more known for birds while all the migrants are here, but we have been blessed with some incredible sightings lately. The birds shown below are a Spotted Eagle-Owl, an African Openbill, the stunning Lilac-breasted Roller and two Malachite Kingfishers. A rare sighting of an Ostrich was also enjoyed by all.

The work in the community continues to flourish, together with the support of our guests, as well as hard work and dedication from community members. For an update on our community projects, have a look at this link.

If you would like create a beautiful memoir of your trip to Africa, we now have photobooks with a Savanna template available on our website

After an incredible journey at Savanna over the past 24 years, Paddy has finally decided to take a break from full-time guiding and retired as of this month. Paddy played an important part in the start of Savanna and put his heart and soul into the lodge. Although he will be sorely missed, his sun has not set, and he fortunately will be returning regularly to visit and remain an important part of the Savanna family.

Jump Little Monkey!!

After experiencing great success over the past 3 days of safari, as a group, we decided to take a slower pace and watch a family of vervet monkeys as they went about their daily duties. My River Lodge guests were happy to experience everything the African bushveld was willing to share with them.

It had all begun as we were bumbling along the wilds of Africa on our morning safari.  We spotted an almost helpless looking little monkey, vervet, of course, sitting alone in a huge tall knob thorn acacia.  Now just for some insight into these little works of wonder.  They are one of only three diurnal (active during the day) primate species to roam the African savannah and we had not yet seen them during the course of our other 6 safari drives.  So as one can imagine, my wonderful guests, my tracker Justice and I were very happy to finally get to see them.  Although at first, it seemed bitter-sweet.  After about 5 minutes, we noticed that the rest of the family were waiting for the little tike on an adjacent tree.

It seemed like it was a defining moment for the little one, almost if it was some type of an initiation or test.  He seemed nervous at first like any youngster of any species would during such an important moment.

He managed to move around almost the entire tree umbrella cover to see what all his options were.  We sat in anticipation as the family started to call for him almost as if they were encouraging him to hurry up. It was getting late in the afternoon and about that time to head to a roosting tree.  He looked around and found himself a branch that extended a little more than the rest. As he lent back, preparing himself for the huge leap, we all held our breaths, for one miss calculation could mean he would not make it or end up impaled on the trees thorny protection..

It appeared as if in our own minds we were all silently counting him down. One… Two… Threeeeeeeee… and he took off like a bird in flight and headed for the adjacent tree.

But … he did not make it all the way!  He did, however, manage to clear the gap and land on a small bush at the base of the tree.

It was still a great accomplishment. He made his way up the tree like a young worrier coming back from his trials out in the world, head held high, oozing with pride, yet still a little clumsy.  We could not help but applaud, yet as quietly as possible not to scare them off.

Absolutely Awesome! That was our final verdict for that day’s game drive. Seeing a young animal be tested like that in nature is a rare occurrence and we felt privileged to have just witnessed it.

Story and photos by: Calton Hartig – River Lodge

A Botswana Safari

Written, photographs, and video, by Tyler Fairbank

I created this video below because I wanted to share the overall experience of being on safari, from start to finish, in a way that hadn’t been done before. I concentrated on seamlessly connecting the little details of a safari – the small plane arriving, the first-person-view from inside the safari vehicles, and of course the abundant wildlife and beautifully diverse landscapes. One of the most important things I considered while editing this piece was to touch on the contrast between each area.

This was my second time in Africa, but my first time in Botswana, having previously concentrated solely on South Africa. Both trips were centered on wildlife, and we chose Botswana because it is one of the best places in the world to observe animals in their natural habitat and in their natural patterns. There is never a dull moment when out on safari – even when there wasn’t a herd of elephants or a lion right in front of us, the landscapes were incredible. The baobab trees, some of which are over a thousand years old, seem to be from another world. I was eager to incorporate them into the video as much as possible.

leopard in Botswana

© Tyler Fairbank

The trip began in the Okavango Delta at Moremi Game Reserve where the dense vegetation can sometimes make spotting wildlife difficult. However, after two lion sightings in the first day, we realised this would not be a problem. After Moremi, we made our way to Chobe National Park on the Chobe River. Unlike South Africa, where water exploration is rare, many game drives in Botswana are done from the river.

It is remarkable to see how relaxed the animals are when approached by boat as opposed to by safari car. Lastly, we continued down to the Makgadikgadi Pans in the Kalahari Desert. The highlight of the pans was visiting the meerkats, which are so comfortable around humans they will literally climb you. This is because they are constantly trying to reach the highest ground possible to see approaching threats.

Meerkat with Tyler Fairbank

© Tyler Fairbank

Flow Motion, the style in which this video was made, is a method of filmmaking that utilises various shooting techniques. Whether that is time-lapse, hyper-lapse, aerial footage or stabilised video, this technique provides viewers a unique way to explore Botswana. One of the main challenges I faced when shooting this was the noise of the shutter. The guides were always laughing because I would shoot hundreds of stills in burst mode, which creates an obvious clicking sound. In many instances, in order to keep the wildlife undisturbed, I would have to hold off from taking the shot.

This video is comprised entirely of raw still images from two DSLR cameras – I did this for several reasons, the most important being the unique movements that comes from this type of shooting. In addition, creating these photo sequences from raw still images results in the highest possible quality in terms of resolution and sharpness. Because every frame is essentially a photo, I am now able to create large-scale prints of my favourite moments.

Safari Botswana was shot over 8 days, and I captured approximately 38,000 images – far larger than any other project I’ve worked on to date. These sequences were rendered into about 300 time-lapse clips and roughly 100 of those clips were used in the final video.