Meet the whistling thorn acacia

The whistling thorn (Acacia drepanolobium) is one species of the acacia trees, thorny trees found in savannas. This tree is home to a fascinating ant-plant mutualism. Swollen thorns on the tree provide shelter for ants. Holes on these swollen thorns serve as doors for the ants and generate a whistling sound when the wind blows over, hence the nickname whistling thorn. In addition to shelter, the tree provides the ant with nectar for food. The ants, in return, protect the tree from herbivores trying to have a snack.

ants-whistling thorn LR2

Ants crawling on the swollen thorn of the Acacia drepanolobium

Ecology is full of such mutualisms, relationships where both species benefit. With conservation in mind, how can we learn from or be inspired by these processes? What possibilities exist for an analogous partnership between conservationists and local communities near a key protected-area?

The Wildlife Foundation has started a land lease program that discourages subdivision and fragmentation in order to maintain migration corridors and wildlife dispersal areas outside of Nairobi National Park. The Maasai practice pastoralism, a livelihood that is complicated by wildlife competing with their livestock. By participating in this program, they receive a small cash payment which is a direct and tangible benefit for helping conservation efforts. The payment helps make school fees affordable. Through this program, pastoralists benefit from wildlife—in interviews my class conducted, the payment received was referred to as wildlife money—and wildlife benefit from the conservation efforts of pastoralists.

What other innovative programs can help reduce human-wildlife conflict outside of Nairobi National Park? More generally, can conservation and development work together? Taking lessons from the whistling thorns and ants, how can we create similar partnerships in our linked social and ecological system, with benefits for both biodiversity and community empowerment?

whistling thorn

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  1. ana zinger
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    loved it! Brilliant

  2. Robert O'Connor
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Hey Molly, Hadn’t thought of Ki-pat and the Kapiti plain in ages and ages but we certainly read it enough back then. Thoroughly enjoyed your observations. Keep up the good work.

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