The Tsavo Conservation Area is comprised of more than 40,000 square kilometres of protected land making it home to a diverse range of species and habitats. From the hippos and crocodiles lounging in the cool, clear waters of Mzima springs to the small Agama lizard eagerly soaking in the sun on the 500-year-old Shetani lava flow, Tsavo is the physical conclusion of an intricate web of interactions and relationships. Each of these interactions is an inspiring story of evolution and the endless struggle to survive.
Whether it’s the elephant, Kenya’s largest ecosystem engineer, shaping the landscape and creating microhabitats, or the small yet significant relationship between an insect and a tree, every interaction between species has a domino-effect influence, however small, on the surrounding environment. This article will delve into some of Tsavo’s more intricate interactions and explore how they are being safeguarded through conservation efforts.
Tsavo’s National Parks were gazetted as areas for the protection of wildlife not primarily for the area’s abundance of fauna but rather because it was so inhospitable to man. In 1940s Kenya, large swathes of land were being claimed by humans for agriculture and development. Tsavo, due to its infertile soil and high amount of Tsetse flies, was considered better left to wildlife.
Despite that the creation of the Tsavo National Parks was a landmark moment in and of itself, its influence was limited due to the high instance rates of poaching and hunting in the 70s and 80s. This meant that, despite the well-intentioned conversion of this land to the exclusive use by animals, Tsavo could not fully realise its potential as a sanctuary for some of Kenya’s vulnerable animal species. However, with huge help from conservation organisations, communities and tourism Tsavo, is now the living embodiment of that potential.
Red-billed hornbills, and how their reproduction is dependent on interspecies activity
If you’ve visited Tsavo, chances are you’ve observed the red-billed hornbill gracefully gliding from tree to tree. This omnivorous bird uses its sizeable beak – which shares some resemblance to a cow’s horn (hence its name) – to feed on fruit, seeds, and even small mammals. They are beautiful birds with a multitude of characterising peculiarities but it is through analysis of their reproductive behaviour that we can best see the importance that being a part of an interactive ecosystem has on their existence.
Hornbills have developed a truly remarkable reproductive strategy that relies on collaboration between males and females, the shared presence of bees, woodpeckers and fungal bodies and a commensal symbiotic relationship with trees in order for it to function smoothly.
A mating pair of hornbills need to find a naturally occurring tree cavity to successfully raise their young. Typically, these cavities are initiated by woodpeckers, before subsequently being expanded by fungal growth and bee colonies. Once abandoned by the bees and if the tree cavity is unoccupied by another hornbill pair, the female enters to lay her eggs. Gradually, the male hornbill constructs a wall using soil and saliva, enclosing the female and eggs within the cavity. A slim gap in the wall lets the male pass food to the female and chicks.
As the chicks develop and demand more space, the female breaks free from the cavity. Subsequently, she collaborates with the male to reconstruct the wall and deliver food through the narrow opening. Ultimately, the chicks mature within the cavity and break free from the nest as fully-fledged hornbills.
This relationship between hornbills and trees exemplifies an inspiring fusion of species interdependence and the hornbill’s resourcefulness, all orchestrated to safeguard the survival of the hornbill’s future generations.
The highly specific behaviour of hornbills not only depends on numerous delicate natural processes, such as the presence of the woodpeckers and bees that create the cavities, but it also relies on conservation endeavours aimed at safeguarding the whole Tsavo ecosystem.
Charcoal production serves as a prevalent income source in unprotected regions of Kenya, yet it can lead to extensive deforestation as trees are felled to supply wood for charcoal kilns. This results in the elimination of critical habitats for various species reliant on trees, and, in the case of the hornbill, it can disrupt their unique reproductive cycle.
Unfortunately, Kenya’s unprotected areas have seen a considerable decline in dry woodlands and tree diversity when contrasted with protected regions like Tsavo East National Park. Thanks to Tsavo Trust’s conservation initiatives, which encompass increasing local income avenues through tourism and community engagement, Tsavo’s trees and the creatures that depend on them are safeguarded. This preservation permits these delicate yet profoundly inspirational interactions to unfold.
The fig tree and its peculiar relationship with the fig wasp
Some of Tsavo’s resident organisms have developed a relationship of mutual dependence so interwoven that neither can subsist without the other. Scientists term this phenomenon ‘obligate mutualism.’ A remarkable illustration of this can be observed in the fig tree. Despite being commonly mistaken for fruits, figs are, in reality, modified flowers designed to entice a variety of animals to consume them. Moreover, they serve to attract a specific insect species crucial for their reproduction: the fig wasp.
A fertilized female fig wasp embarks on a quest to find a suitable fig tree for laying her eggs. Upon reaching her destination, she encounters a challenge: to deposit her eggs, she must squeeze through a narrow passage within the fig. This channel is so constricted that she loses her wings and antennae during the process. Once inside, the pollen carried on her body fertilizes the female component of the fig flower, contributing to the fig tree’s reproductive cycle. She becomes trapped in the fig, losing her life but finding the ideal environment for the laying of her eggs.
After her eggs hatch, male wasps emerge to fertilize the new females. These males create tunnels within the fig, which the females use to escape. Covered in fig tree pollen and fertilized, the females emerge from the fig, initiating the cycle anew.
This narrative paints a picture of a brief, tragic yet pivotal existence, intricately woven into the rhythm of fig trees and their diminutive partners. This existence plays a crucial role in the survival of both species, as well as the numerous animal species reliant on figs, including elephants, monkeys, and many bird species like the hornbill. The fig tree’s very existence hinges on the fig wasp and a delicate equilibrium of other environmental elements. This symbiotic relationship underscores the fragility of a species’ survival and emphasizes the necessity of conserving the entire landscape that supports their existence.
Fostering Conservation and Collaboration: BIOPAMA’s Impact on Tsavo’s Biodiversity
BIOPAMA is a global programme, implemented by IUCN and the Joint Research Centre of the European Union, that has one paramount objective: to enhance the long-term conservation and sustainable utilization of biodiversity and natural resources worldwide. Collaborating with organizations like Tsavo Trust, BIOPAMA has orchestrated various strategies to safeguard the Tsavo conservation area and the inspiring small-scale interactions that unfold within it.
One of these strategies is the “10% Fence Project,” led by Tsavo Trust with support from BIOPAMA. This initiative aims to install fencing around 10% of individual land plots, leaving the remaining 90% accessible to transient wildlife like impala and dikdik, while simultaneously safeguarding crops. Initial case studies have demonstrated a remarkable 100% reduction in crop loss attributed to wildlife. This endeavour, coupled with other strategies like the utilization of bee-hive fences by organizations like Save the Elephants, fortifies the livelihoods of local communities.
BIOPAMA has played a pivotal role in fostering alternative livelihoods through increased tourism, including the establishment of a tourism facility in the Kamungi Conservancy through Tsavo Trust. By providing alternative income sources and safeguarding existing ones, local communities can rely less on activities like charcoal production, a leading cause of deforestation. This reduction in deforestation directly benefits tree-dependent animal species, ensuring the preservation of their critical habitats. As a result, the delicate relationships between animals and trees, such as the unique partnership between hornbills and their nesting trees, are conserved, contributing to the overall health and balance of Tsavo’s ecosystem.
The immense scope of Tsavo, combined with the sheer size of its renowned inhabitants such as super tuskers and black rhinos, undeniably inspires a sense of wonder. However, when you look closely at the small scale symbiotic relationships between species, you see that even the often overlooked interactions necessitate safeguarding. With the support of essential conservation organizations like BIOPAMA and the Tsavo Trust, along with the ongoing enhancement of relationships between local communities and wildlife, these interactions can continue to inspire future generations.