A baobab and his wife.
If a stranger came up to me and asked to take one photo that captures the essence of the African bush as I know it, the photo will have to feature a baobab tree. A herd of elephant day-dreaming under a leafless baobab. Or a baobab silhouetted against a red African sunrise. Or maybe a baobab and his wife, standing side by side for century upon century dwarfing the giants underneath them. It is one of the icons of Africa and unsurprisingly the source of many superstitions. Evil spirits sleep here at night and in Zambia, women are forbidden from eating the fruit during the beer-brewing process, as it will make the beer go bad.
Scientists still vary in their estimations of the age of large baobab (Adansonia digitata) trees. Some specimens have been carbon-dated to more than 1100 years old while other estimates predict that trees with a 10m diameter may be as old as 3000 years. After a growth spurt in their early years (the first 250 years or so) these giants add to their diameters at a snail’s pace: 2,5mm per annum.
Sitting underneath a specific tree aptly indicated as “big baobab” on the South Luangwa National Park map, our guests began to wonder – what has this tree seen in its lifetime?
I imagine myself massive herds of buffalo passing by on their way to water or prides of lion sleeping in its shade before starting off on the night’s hunt. I wonder, out of the 365 000 sunsets it’s seen before, which one was the most magnificent? How did it celebrate its 1000th birthday?
But most importantly – for a tree that changes itself at a mere 2,5mm per year, what does it think of the changes its seen in the last few centuries?
The Achewa, Nsenga and Tumbaka.
The baobab saw the arrival of the Achewa, Nsenga and Tumbaka tribes from the Congo in the 14th century and I wonder what it made of these upright primates as they came and went with the seasons? As trade-routes slowly began developing into the interior of central Africa, the first Europeans started making their way into the area. In 1796 Manoel Pereira, a Portuguese explorer, arrived and soon thereafter a trade-post was established. One of the trade-caravans might even have camped underneath the big baobab.
In 1866, a man by the name of David Livingstone crossed paths with the Luangwa River, noting that “it’s impossible to describe its luxuriance…” As I sit here at my desk writing this newsletter I can hear a camera crew chatting away in Spanish outside the office window – they are following the footsteps of Mr Livingstone and will air their footage on Discovery Channel soon. How things have changed?
In 1895 the British South African Company took charge of what is today called Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, but that was after rinderpest swept through Southern African, killing almost 95% of its fauna! The Luangwa Valley was not spared.
Elephant Control Officers.
During the early stages of the 19th century traders, missionaries and hunters started visiting frequently and soon ivory was being traded for slaves, taking a massive toll on the elephant and hippo population of the area.
Modern day South Luangwa National Park has the Thornicroft’s giraffe to thank for its existence. In 1904, the Chilongozi area was declared a game-reserve in order to protect this sub-species of giraffe that can only be found here. It was de-proclaimed 9 years later, but the foundations had been laid and in the 1930’s elephant populations have regained their numbers and were beginning to cause problems for a relatively new invention to the area – farming.
“Elephant Control Officers” were introduced by the government of the then Northern Rhodesia and problem animals were culled and meat distributed to the local community. The “ground-tusk” rule applied, with the tusk closer to the ground going to the hunter and the other going to the government.
Meet the meat demands.
In 1938 South Luangwa was again proclaimed as a game-reserve and the slow process of moving villages out of the reserve was put in motion.
In the early 1950’s Norman Carr, in conjunction with the paramount chief Nsefu, set up hunting and photographic safaris in South Luangwa and as early as 1955 pontoons were built to ferry tourist across the Luangwa River.
October 1964 saw Northern Rhodesia attain independence and Zambia, as we know it today, was formed. With the copper industry booming elsewhere in Zambia, the Luangwa Valley became a hotspot for culling of elephant, buffalo and hippo to meet the meat demands of workers.
If our baobab could count, he would have seen one-hundred thousand elephant here then. It was also during that time when all game-reserves were abolished by the government and reinstated as National Parks. South Luangwa National Park was officially opened for business in 1971 and the Chichele Presidential Lodge was built by President Kenneth Kaunda in 1972. Three years later an airport, tarred access roads and a bridge over the Luangwa River followed. By then culling had officially been stopped by the government but some tough years still lay ahead… The demand for ivory, skins, meat and trophies would create a poaching frenzy!
The baobab tree was weeping.
Skip ahead twenty-five years and the elephant population of South Luangwa National Park had decreased to an alarming 5000 individuals! Nearly all of the 8000 black rhino that once roamed the area had been poached and not even the formation of the Save the Rhino Project could halt their demise. Wildlife Camp was opened in 1992 but the last signs our guests ever saw of rhino was out on a walk with Herman when they found tracks in 1996. The baobab tree was weeping.
In 1999 the South Luangwa Area Management Unit was formed under the newly established Zambian Wildlife Authority. Their main objective is to “conserve wildlife and to facilitate the development of the local communities through sustainable utilization of the natural resources.”
The Baobab can rest assured.
These days the Baobab can rest assured that, even though poaching is still a problem all over the world, South Luangwa National Park is privileged to be guarded by the Zambian Wildlife Authority as well as various other non-profit organizations such as the South Luangwa Conservation Society, the Chipembele Wildlife Educational Trust and the Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Society of Zambia. The elephant numbers are slowly but surely rising once again and up in North Luangwa National Park they are busy rehabilitating the black rhino.
Three years ago I planted a baobab tree in my garden. Back then it was 30cm high and after the next rainy season it should reach 2 meters. And now I wonder – if this one manages to survive, what stories will he have to tell after the next 1000 years? I can only hope that he’ll remember the generation of his planter as more humane than the ones that had come before.
And on that hopeful note, it’s time to end.
Warm Regards from all of us here at Wildlife Camp.