When elephants and baobab trees share habitat, it is the baobab that suffers – MUT Master’s study has found 

Press release statement

For immediate release: 30 June 2021

Submitted by: The Department of Marketing & Communications

Via email: Hlophe@mut.ac.za


When elephants and baobab trees share habitat, it is the baobab that suffers – MUT Master’s study has found 

It has become common knowledge that, “When elephants fight, the grass suffers, but when they make love, the grass suffers also”, courtesy of this African proverb. But what happens when these majestic and towering animals share a habitat with an equally imposing giant of the African continent, the iconic baobab tree, whose size is only best described by the Togolese proverb: “Wisdom is like a baobab tree: no one individual can embrace it.”?

This was the subject of inquiry for Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) Master of Nature Conservation student, Dellan Steven Khosa. Khosa’s study was titled, Assessing effect of African elephant (Loxodontaafricana) on the African baobab trees (Adansoniadigitata) of the Mapungubwe National Park, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Khosa graduated with a Master of Nature Conservation qualification at MUT’s virtual graduation on 19 June 2021. He was part of the 13 Master’s students that the Department of Nature Conservation graduated this year, the highest number since the degree’s inception three years ago.

This study, which was conducted in 2019, found that the damage on baobab trees was increasing due to the impact of elephants in the park.

“Results show that 8% of baobab trees were found dead in 2019. Moreover, of 18 trees that had 100% debarking in 2005, one (1) tree (equal to 6%) was found dead in 2019,” Khosa said. “The results furthermore illustrate that debarking has increased considerably since 2009 with the majority of trees (43%) in 2009 only being in class 2 (1-26% debarked), while in 2019 the majority of trees displayed 76-100% debarking (45% in class 5).”

Khosa explained that although the study found an increase in debarking, it did not find sufficient evidence to suggest that baobab mortality between 2009 and 2019 was a result of elephant impact.

Khosa’s study set out to engage with four critical objectives: “to determine the baobab density and spatial distribution and compare the structure of the baobab population across the two sections of the Mapungubwe National Park; to determine whether elephant damage caused death of the baobab trees and the proportion of baobab mortality between 2005-2009; to determine the extent elephant damage (debark & dieback % ) within the Eastern and Western sections and also determine which size class of the tree is most affected across the two sections of the park; and to determine whether trees could survive to 2019 if they were 100% debarked in 2005?”.

Khosa explained that with the knowledge of the damage that elephant can cause on the tree population, it was important to conduct the study at Mapungubwe National Park.

“Mapungubwe National Park was created to preserve biodiversity and cultural heritage in South Africa and is an open system park with a high population of African Elephants, as well as the iconic baobab tree,” said Khosa. “The potential for elephant damage is therefore of concern to the SANParks (South African National Parks).”

The study will contribute to critical conservation efforts at the park, especially now when baobab trees are on their way to becoming endangered species due to climate change.