Juan’s World: Ecosystem Engineers

by jabulani

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How to create an environment to sustain our elephants

In previous posts, we have focused a lot on the sustainability of Jabulani – the lodge. Although this is crucial, our sustainability philosophy extends much further than the lodge. Jabulani is famous for rescuing a herd of elephants in 2002 from an elephant-back safari operation in Zimbabwe. These elephants were to be culled during the country’s land reform process. The herd was brought to South Africa and introduced to Jabulani, the little elephant that started it all.

Since then, four claves have been born to the greater herd and another two orphan elephants have been introduced. Over time, the herd has gradually increased in size, with no sign of slowing down.

As the elephants can’t be more than a few hours walk away from the central paddocks where they reside at night, there have been a few challenges that have arisen.

Elephants, the Great Ecosystem Engineers

Elephants are generally referred to as ecosystem engineers, because of the significant role they play in modifying and shaping the landscape.

Elephants often push over and uproot trees. These decomposing trees, in turn, create a new habitat for small mammals and thousands of insect species. Elephants strip trees of their bark – after which the tree usually dies. They clear areas that are overgrown with thick strands of encroaching small trees, making these areas more accessible to other animals. During this clearing event, the surface of soil will be littered with small branches. These scattered branches, along with the elephant dung, create a microhabitat ideal for seed germination. As elephants travel, the spread seeds all over, often introducing much-needed plant diversity in previously mismanaged areas.

Elephants are a big part of the reason that we see vast and open landscapes filled with perennial grass communities and large trees dotting this landscape.

However, because of factors such as the limited size of our herd’s home range, previous agricultural activities and selective overgrazing, the land is at threat of degradation and is in need of intervention.

A Holistic Environmental Management Plan

This intervention comes in the form of a holistic environmental management plan that aims to systematically rehabilitate the affected areas and protect it from degradation in the future, keeping in mind the ever-increasing size of the herd. At its very core, this plan includes, but is not limited to, techniques for combatting large erosion networks to prevent the loss of valuable topsoil, planning and revising road networks and associated infrastructure and, most importantly, techniques that will revive the basal grass layer essential for ecosystem well-being.

The plan also includes strategies to protect too many existing large trees from being pushed over by the herd. The remaining community of large trees are critical for the functioning of core ecosystem services such as the hydrological cycle, pollination, micro-habitats for smaller members of the ecosystem and simply, to shade animals from the sun.

Through the insightful implementation of this plan, we at Jabulani aim to over the course of the next few years create an environment that can truly sustain not only this herd of flagship species but also every other member of this complex and ever-changing ecosystem. 

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