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Ancient Inhabitants

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

Two nights ago, I was awoken by the loudest noise I had ever heard.

It reverberated through camp, echoing deep into the night and out onto the floodplain. Obviously a gargantuan effort, the origin of these rumbles slowly wombled back into the bush accompanied by the sound of crushed mangosteen and heavy breathing – evidently a few elephants had passed through our base camp.

The source of the midnight malady. Image NHFU/Hannah Gormley.

Having grown up in the UK this was a novel experience, there are not many elephants to be found in the tame pastures of South England. Or so I thought… It turns out that evolutionary remnants of Britain’s once burgeoning elephant population can be found in nearly every hedgerow. During the Eemian stage (a period of interglacial warming 130,000 to 113,000 years ago), straight-tusked elephants alongside Mercks and narrow nose rhinoceros roamed the landscape and fascinatingly, the climate was almost identical to Northern Europe’s current one. Nowadays, if you are to fell a yew, box or holly (understory trees and shrubs), they quickly coppice and sprout new roots in direct defense to these elephantine threats of the past.

Elephants are herbivores and voracious grazers.

And it wasn’t only elephants and rhinos, there are huge concentrations of hippo bones below the Thames and lion skulls emerged during an excavation under Trafalgar Square. During the glacial periods that surrounded this temperate clime, woolly mammoth and woolly rhino performed a taxon substitution, fulfilling the same ecological role as the previous inhabitants. It seems that the mind-blowing megafauna biodiversity of the Okavango have irreparably left their mark on every field and forest of my native land.

Elephants are one of the main species in our recent film, Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale.

Here in the delta, elephants are, of course, still remarkably active, maintaining their role as keystone species across this bizarre landscape. To be surrounded unexpectedly by a herd of surprisingly quiet gentle giants is about as spiritual an experience as any biologist or filmmaker could ever have. And they also fulfill multiple services to the local vegetation. The ancient migration routes of elephant herds across Botswana can be tracked through the spread of palm and marula trees and they are instrumental in distributing a multitude of seeds and fruit throughout the country. Some seeds even require the harsh conditions provided by elephant stomach acid and peristalsis through the digestive tract to germinate.

We have much to thank these mammoth ecosystem engineers for the maintenance and propagation of the delta. Having said this, I wish they could move around more considerately – NHFU interns need their beauty sleep.

Blog written by George Honeyborne.


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