Ancient Guardians of Tsavo
What is so alluring about the African baobab? Perhaps any living thing that is older than most modern countries deserves our respect. Something amazing about Tsavo is the sheer number of massive baobabs that adorn the landscape. Many of these trees have watched over Tsavo for more than a thousand years. Standing next to one, it isn’t difficult to imagine what it has seen in its lifetime. Of course baobabs can’t actually see, but if they could, what stories would they tell? I’m thinking of one tree in particular that sits near Ithumba hill, very close to where the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has set up its Northern Tsavo reintegration site.
Ithumba baobab. Photograph by Neville Sheldrick.
With most trees, age can be estimated by counting rings, as each growing season deposits another distinct layer of wood. Even living trees can be aged by drilling into the trunk and extracting a layered core, which can then be counted. Baobabs, however, have a soft fleshy trunk and therefore, no rings. Well they do have very faint rings, but these are difficult to discern and since most old baobabs have been hollowed out by elephants looking for water and minerals, this isn’t practical. The most accurate way to judge the age of a baobab is by using radiocarbon dating, through which some baobabs have been estimated at over 1200 years old. The Sunland Baobab in Limpopo Province, South Africa is claimed to be radiocarbon-dated at 6000 years, but this appears to be an unsubstantiated claim.
UK Director, Rob Brandford attempts to climb the tree. Photograph by Neville Sheldrick
In most cases, baobab age is largely speculative and usually estimated based on the size of the tree, which varies depending on the climate conditions during it’s developmental years. If the incredibly dry conditions of Northern Tsavo today are any indication then the Ithumba baobab, at about 6 metres in diameter, must be ancient.
Because of their size and hollowed out trunks, they make excellent homes for a variety of creatures. Bats and rodents are common, which in turn attract snakes. Bee hives are also common, with some being placed there by Wakamba tribesmen, whilst others occur naturally. Many baobabs in Tsavo can be found with wooden pegs protruding from their trunk in a zig-zag pattern, which are used as a makeshift ladder to reach the hive.
Baobabs are also popular places to nest for a variety of birds, which means they often become impromptu gardens when seeds are deposited in their branches. Among the more popular hitchhikers are strangler figs, which will sometimes completely take over a baobab. It is also possible to find various creepers and other small plants that manage to take hold, providing even more cover for additional species. The baobab, therefore, creates its own little ecosystem, each unique to the next but no less important. Like the elephant, these huge organisms play a crucial role in the Tsavo Conservation Area. Standing proudly above the rugged landscape they act as guardians, offering food and shelter to all manner of life.
Resident bats scared out from a hollow in the tree by Rob's climbing attempt. Photograph by Neville Sheldrick.
Creeper stretching down from the top of the baobab still green from the recent rains. Photograph by Neville Sheldrick.