Asking a guest what they would like to see on safari has mostly the same answers. For new safari goers, it is “the Big Five”, and for regulars, they may request more elusive creatures such as aardvark, pangolin or caracal, and then of course there are the die- hard birders!
You don’t often hear of requests to learn about the trees or the grasses, because they are not as obviously exciting or as breathtaking as a leopard or a huge herd of elephants!
Of course, however, our guests come to the Greater Kruger National Park to view the creatures in their natural environment, which obviously includes the vegetation.
All natural ecosystems will not survive without the deeply interconnected relationships and dependence between animals and plants. You cannot have one without the other. All creatures whether mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian or fish, as well as all the microscopic creatures we cannot see, rely on plants in order to survive. The relationship may be very subtle, such as micro-organisms breaking down organic matter beneath the ground, or nitrates from a carcass enriching the soil to stimulate plant growth, or pretty obvious, such as an elephant browsing on leaves or bees pollinating flowers.
When visiting Kings Camp for the first time, or even in a different season, our guests are amazed by the beauty of the landscape and the variety of vegetation types they see – the vastness of the open plains changing dramatically into thick forest-like riverine vegetation, mopane or thorny thickets or bare sodic sites, to name a few.
The vegetation biome in which Kings Camp and the Greater Kruger National Park is situated is called the Savanna. Savanna is characterized by a well-developed grassy layer, and a prominent woody layer in the form of bush and trees. The trees are widely spaced so as not to form a closed canopy to allow for the growth of the grassy layer. Savanna vegetation grows under hot, seasonally dry conditions.
A huge variation in environmental factors within the Savanna Biome, such as climate and topography, will determine different soil types, which will determine a variation of vegetation types and therefore a variation in animal life.
Savanna vegetation covers half the surface of Africa, as well as large areas of Australia, South America and India. The savanna of South Africa contains about 5788 different plant species!
This biome supports a huge variety of animal life, particularly grazing animals, which thrive on the abundance of grass and trees. The African Savanna can support spectacular congregations of grazing animals, such as African buffalo, plains zebra and blue wildebeest, as well as browsers such as giraffe and kudu, and mixed feeders such as African elephants and impala. Of course, where you have lots of herbivores, there must be predators. There are many predators roaming the savanna, such as lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, African wild dogs as well as many, many smaller predators from mongoose to snakes, small cats and meat- eating birds.
One reason that so many different species of plant eating animals can live in the savanna habitat is that they have adapted to eat different plants. This may be a different species of plant, the same plant at a different height, different parts of the plant, or plants at different times of the year. Some animals are built to eat the short grass close to the ground, whereas other animals, such as giraffe, have adapted to eat from trees high off the ground!
It is the grasses of the Savanna that really are the champions of this ecosystem. There are thousands of species of grass in the world, and hundreds of species in southern Africa. If you look closely at grass in the summer, you will be able to differentiate the different species, and really appreciate the diversity of grass and their delicate beauty!
Grass is the most important food source in the savanna ecosystem, and it is also highly important for humans too! Did you know that wheat, oats, barley, rye, rice, corn and sorghum are all grasses? These have been staple foods for civilizations all around the world for thousands of years, and continue to be!
Grass has adapted perfectly to the environmental conditions it is found in. In the rainy season it thrives, transforming the landscape with lush greenery as well as showing off their delicate inflorescences (flowering parts), and in the dry winter months the leaves mostly die back, but the plant survives underground as roots and rhizomes.
Grasses grow from the base of the stem as well as nodes along the stem, and many of these species of grass thrive on being grazed! That is why you mow a lawn in order for it to keep growing healthily!
Some grasses, however, do not benefit from being grazed too much, so they have ways of deterring grazers. For example, pinhole grass has chemical protection to make it distasteful, Ngongoni three-awn grass is very tough, and bristle grass has hairy, dust- collecting leaves.
While many grasses grow quicker when they are grazed, trees have to protect themselves against being browsed on too heavily. The most obvious method of this, as you would have definitely noticed on safari, is by using thorns and spikes. These protect the leaves and branches from being eaten too quickly by animals, but the animals themselves have adapted ways of dealing with these thorns too.
Giraffes stick their long noses into a thorn tree, wrapping their long thick rubbery tongue around nutritious leaves, and pulling the leaves off with equally tough lips, leaving the thorns behind, while protecting their eyes with long eyelashes.
Elephants have very thick, tough skin all over their bodies, inside their mouths and on their tongues, and when you witness them wrapping their trunk around a terrifyingly thorny branch without even flinching you can tell that they are well adapted for the job. Sometimes whole thorny branches are chewed, and a lot of the tough material comes out the other side- that is one of the reasons why you should not drive over elephant dung as you may get a flat tyre from the thorns (another reason is of course all those important little dung beetles busy consuming the dung)!
Some plants also use chemical means to deter browsers and grazers in the form of tannins. A tannin is a bitter- tasting organic substance found in plant seeds, bark, wood, leaves and fruit skins. Have you ever tasted the bitter skin of a grape?
Many trees can increase their tannin levels when they are being browsed upon, for instance when a giraffe starts browsing on a particular tree, the tree will increase its tannins, after a while the leaves will become bitter to the taste, and the giraffe will move on!
Plants in the savanna are well adapted to the short rainy season and longer dry season. Many plants such as Acacia species have small leaves to limit the amount of evaporation. A well developed root system allows plants to survive both drought and fire. An extensive shallow root system allows plants to make use of light rain showers, and deeper fleshy root systems contain a large amount of moisture to use in the case of droughts.
In the dry season, many trees avoid drying out by dropping their leaves, storing moisture and nutrients in the inner bark and roots. This is why you often find elephants stripping off the nutritious inner bark and pushing over trees to get to the roots at this time of the year! Some trees have tough, leathery leaves that do not dry out very quickly, but are not very tasteful to browsers.
Some creatures in the savanna habitat are very important, for example termites, and elephants.
Termite mounds are distinctive features of many savanna landscapes, and many termites are important decomposers in their ecosystems. You may have heard of termites eating away at wood and buildings, but not all species of termites are destructive! Termites can be hugely positive, or hugely negative to the savanna ecosystem.
There are many species in the savanna that greatly benefit the ecosystem, such as being decomposers of dead vegetation, a source high protein food for many mammals (as well as humans), reptiles and birds, and the structure of a termite mound and its vast underground chambers creates homes for many creatures, such as hyenas, snakes, some owls, frogs, warthogs, African wild dogs and rock monitors.
Termites are an essential part of the savanna ecosystem. Areas around their mounds are rich in nutrients and support more nutrient- rich grasses and a variety of shrubs and trees. This is due to termites aerating the soil, allowing rainwater to drain deep into the soil to reach plant roots. Their droppings fertilize the soil, and many seeds and decaying vegetation is taken underground to create rich soil and assist in the growth of new plants.
Harvester termites are not as beneficial. They consume living vegetation, wiping out huge areas of plants and taking away grazing or browsing from other animals.
Elephants have the ability to shape savannas. The destructive nature of elephants is most apparent when you go on safari – seeing many dead trees with their bark stripped and trees pushed over with their roots exposed. However, as long as the elephant population of the specific area is not too great, a lot of this seemingly destructive behaviour is beneficial.
Elephant dung acts as a good fertilizer and food to many insects, and in turn birds and other animals. Elephants open up thick woodland areas to grassland, creating more grazing opportunities for grazer animals. Pushing over trees may seem only destructive, but it brings shelter and food down to ground level for smaller animals. Elephants are also important for seed dispersal of many fruits such as the marula. Their trampling breaks up hard soil, and breaks down rocks.
Negative impacts of elephants include ring-barking trees, destroying and pushing over too many important trees such as marulas, destroying saplings, tearing leaves and branches and stripping bark from the main stem. Many of these negative impacts are being controlled on Kings Camp by protecting large, iconic trees such as marula and knobthorn, using wire-net protection. This method increases the survival rate of individual trees by protecting them from being bark- stripped by elephants.
As you have learnt, the plant life of Kings Camp goes hand in hand with the animal life. And plants can be just as fascinating- and always much easier to find! Next time you join us on safari, grab your Species List, and ask your guide to help you to tick off and learn more about some of the trees and other plant species of the area!
By Tracey Bruton
Post courtesy of Kings Camp