Saving Iconic Okavango Tree Specimens From Certain Death

Jul 6, 2016 Conservation
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In a recent fire at Vumbura Plains five of our majestic jackalberries were burned to the point that we were not sure if they would survive. Damage ranged from trees losing their entire outer bark layer, exposing the heartwood, to being scorched and causing the crowns to drop all their leaves. Casting our doubts aside we pulled out all the stops to try and restore the trees to their original glory.

The tree sizes, species significance, and hopefully continued excellent health are qualities that contribute to all of our experiences when staying at Vumbura Plains. On safari we tend to take the trees for granted forgetting they supply us shade and shelter, they collect dust, not to mention the perfumes they release – which we experience as the unique fragrance of the Delta, and of course, there’s the oxygen they produce…

So, you ask, how do you save fire-damaged trees that are a couple of decades old?

You call in an expert!

Riaan van Zyl – an arborist and conservation forester – flew in with his team to evaluate the damage and got stuck right in. Firstly they applied a paste to the stems of the most damaged trees (the paste consisted of clay from a damaged ant hill, humus rich Delta soil and some manure). This clay-based mixture, rich in local microorganisms, is intended to help protect the inner live layers of the exposed heart wood, and provide competition to pathological organisms which would otherwise cause infection and the trees’ decline. The paste will be re-applied in a month’s time.

A watering system was established around the roots below the tree canopy to promote new growth in the upper soil. The root system, although having access to water due to the high water table, will benefit from added water to the top layer.

All dead and dangerous branches were removed. The intent is to reduce the trees to their live wood and so stimulate new growth from healthy wounds. On inspection the tree workers also advised (with great relief) that the trees – even the most damaged tree – still had green leaves at their canopy ends. They decided to thin the canopies, but to retain the co-dominant canopy which is typical of the jackalberry.

The next step will be to see how the trees recover in spring and summer and how much growth the canopies produce. The tree maintenance programme will then provide further guidance as to the full restoration of the trees over time.

Fingers crossed that these beautiful trees are restored to their original beauty in time!

Written by Cheri Ross, Kwedi Concession Service Coordinator

Photographed by Riaan van Zyl and Cheri Ross

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