Nature is intricate and complex. It has spectacular beauty but it can also be gruesome and cruel. It’s always honest. And if you look in the right places, ask the right questions, and lend an open ear, it’ll show you a beautiful image.
My experience at GVI has been like trying to piece together that beautiful image. Knowing the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees was about the extent of my botany knowledge when arriving on base. Even when going on my first drive every tree looked the same. And then I learned about the Knobthorn and the relationship it has with giraffe. The Knobthorn and giraffe have an important mutualistic relationship in Karongwe. You see, as the giraffe feeds on the flowers of the knob thorn, its lips and nose and forehead pick up pollen from the surrounding ones. Since the giraffe is always eating, it’s able to transfer this pollen to other Knobthorns. Knob thorns actually make up roughly 40% of the giraffe’s diet. This interaction makes the giraffe the largest pollinator in the world based on its mass. Learning about this interaction became the first frame in my kaleidoscope.
Other than trees, I noticed these large mounds of dirt that seemed to pop up around every corner. They really just seemed like an eye sore to me. That’s until the field staff explained to me how they come to be and their relationship with the aardvark. I learned the large fungus-growing termite makes these mounds by mixing their saliva with clay and feces. The mounds end up being rock hard and extremely durable allowing them to last centuries and reach 5 meters in height. What’s more, the mounds are so nutrient that you’ll often see trees sprouting out of them. This not only provides the tree with extra nourishment but extra structure and support as well. As the Aardvark dig it out to create a home for themselves they send a nutrient dense mixture of soil back into the ground, fertilizing it. I never would have guessed how integral these eye sores were to the surrounding land and the aardvark’s diet. Everything in nature really does have a purpose, even if its not apparently clear to us.
It isn’t all pretty. With life comes death and someone, or more so something, has to take care of the remains. And that’s where vultures come in. Their job is vital to the health and cleanliness of an ecosystem. Vultures have a highly acidic system in their stomachs that can break down diseases in rotting carrion that might well poison other animals. Unfortunately, the population of White-backed Vultures in Africa has seen a rapid decline with an estimate of 90% over three generations (55 years). Vultures throughout southern Africa are specifically targeted for medicinal purposes in the illegal animal trade as well as for meat. Poachers avoid attracting attention to their kill by poisoning the animal carcass. This poison can which wipe out huge numbers of vultures at once. Almost 70% of breeding pairs have vanished since 2001 as a result.
Through these insights and more, I’ve realized it’s not so much what you’re looking at but the lens you’re using to study it. I look forward to learning more about the connections between plant and animal, people and nature, and where each relationship fits into the grand picture.