Project 20/20 – transforming the landscape

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Twenty thousand trees in 20 years – it’s an ambitious number, but Connor Thompson, field guide at Tiger Canyon Private Game Reserve, is positive.

Tiger Canyon, an ex-situ conservation project near Philippolis in the Free State, supports an increasing number of wild tigers. Planting fast-growing trees will enable the tigers to hunt more effectively as they are stalk-and-pounce hunters. The trees will also play an important role in establishing new territories, den sites, scent marking and scratching posts for the tigers.

Three species of endemic drought-resistant trees, namely the sweet thorn (Vachellia karroo), karee (Searsia lancea), and buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) are being planted along all pre-existing interconnecting drainage lines, water catchments, and hillsides.

“The aim of the project is not to get rid of the plains game, but to create a more balanced ecosystem,” Thompson explains. “More trees will result in an increased number of smaller grazing herds with more defined territories, which in turn will improve gene flow.”

“It is vital not to let one species of antelope be preyed upon more than others. Planting more trees prevents this from happening by providing tigers with a fair opportunity to feed on both browsers and grazers,” he adds.

The trees are being planted during the wet season to give them a chance to adapt to the harsh conditions of the False Upper Karoo. “After the first year, the sapling would have had a chance to establish roots and generate new leaves, and will be out of the woods, so to speak,” says Thompson.

When it comes to trees, three is not a crowd. In nature certain tree species can be found growing in clusters of three. “Each tree in the grouping of three provides a different function,” Thompson explains. The karee, a pioneer species, provided shelter against harsh winters and excessive cold by giving cover to the more frost-sensitive trees, while providing browse all year round. The sweet thorn provides excellent browsing in the summer months, while its long thorns also help protect the karee from being overbrowsed during winter. It puts nitrogen back into the soil too, which benefits grasses. The buffalo thorn has high-value browse throughout the year, but is incredibly frost-sensitive, so it requires protection from the wind-resistant karee.

The False Upper Karoo consists of grasslands dominated by dwarf Karoo shrubs growing in heavily clayed soil on shallow shale banks. The roots of trees naturally break the shale banks beneath the soil, speeding up new soil production and introducing nutrients. Increased nutrients results in better conditions for further tree growth, and this in turn aids browsers like kudu, which are less common in the reserve.

The first trees were planted in April. “Project 20/20 is a natural change in the landscape that will occur over the century,” Thompson says.

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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