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Millennium Seed Bank blog

Welcome to the Millennium Seed Bank blog. There is a lot going on behind the scenes at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) - not only here at Wakehurst but also with our partners all over the globe. We will be blogging about our seed collecting trips, local events, research projects and discoveries as well as everyday goings on.

We currently have seeds from more than 30,000 species of wild plants in long term storage and continue to receive seed collections from all over the world. It is an amazing place to work and we hope to share our passion for seed conservation with you via our blogs. 

Find out more about Kew's MSB | Adopt a seed for £25 or save a species outright

Feeding the ten billion

By: Daniel Barker - 27 Jun 2013
By the year 2050 there will be 10 billion people in the world - but will there be enough food to feed them? That was the topic of a recent debate at the Royal Society, organised by Kew Gardens.
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With people across the world already starving and the population growing by the minute there aren’t many issues which are more serious or more immediate. Gathered to discuss what the answers might be were: Dr Paul Smith and Professor Monique Simmonds from Kew, Dr Geoffrey Hawtin from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Professor Charles Godfray from Oxford University and Judith Batchelar, Director of Sainsbury’s Brand. After an introduction from Kew’s Director, Richard Deverell, the task of orchestrating the debate fell to Quentin Cooper, the science journalist famous for BBC Radio 4’s 'Material World' and our chair for the evening.

Photo of panel and audience in the Kohn Centre at the Royal Society

Panel and audience in the Kohn Centre at the Royal Society (Photo: Andrew McRobb, RBG, Kew)

Charles Godfray started on a note of cautious optimism. Yes, the population is growing, but the rate of growth is slowing down. As people become more affluent they tend to have fewer children and, in general, the human population keeps itself under control. Charles noted that “our” diet – the diet of wealthy westerners as it is now – won’t be available for 10 billion people; that’s not realistic. But if we improve global governance and production systems to use the land we have more efficiently, then we will be able to feed everyone.

Geoff Hawtin echoed Charles’ optimism, noting that 50 years ago the population of India faced starvation and people thought their food production problems were insurmountable. Now the country is thriving and produces enough food to export it. The “Green Revolution” was a triumph and science has shown us how to produce food much more efficiently. The key challenges now are how we give people access to that food and how we ensure its quality.

Geoff noted that fostering genetic diversity is crucial to our success. For example, minor crops and crop wild relatives contain valuable traits which we need to preserve. Geoff highlighted the importance of Kew’s role in protecting and utilising this diversity before handing over to Paul Smith, head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. Paul emphasised three things Kew can bring to the table: an unrivalled collection of plants and plant material; world-class expertise; and global partnerships.

Photo of some panellists at the Feeding ten billion event

Panellists: Judith Batchelar, Director of Sainsbury’s Brand; Dr Geoffrey Hawtin from the Global Crop Diversity Trust; Paul Smith, Head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (Photo: Andrew McRobb, RBG, Kew)

Judith Batchelar then noted that Sainsbury’s currently feeds 24 million people a week – a small number, globally speaking, but one that means the supermarket chain needs a sound understanding of production and supply. Sainsbury’s is investing in research and development in a way that would have been unimaginable 5 years ago and is working with Kew to find sustainable sources, protect ecosystems and make better use of the genetic diversity available.

Finally Monique Simmonds, head of Kew’s Sustainable Uses of Plants Group, pointed out that food security is still a very new challenge. Kew has the expertise to identify quality food sources and ensure they have the traits we value most. This gives us the opportunity to improve food supply, food quality and food safety.

After this point the discussion ranged from agriculture to biotechnology, and from pollinators to population control, via GM crops and many other related issues. Quentin kept the panellists in order and steered the lively discussion with wit and verve. By the end everyone still had more they wanted to say and the conversations continued long after the panellists had left their seats. But the defining message was, yes, we can feed 10 billion people - but only if we seize the opportunities available to us and make the best use of the resources we have right now.

Royal Society drinks

Kew Patrons and other guests enjoying refreshments after the debate (Photo: Andrew McRobb, RBG, Kew)

This event was part of the Kew Patrons calendar. The next debate will be at the Royal Geographic Society on 7 November and is titled 'The World's Most Valuable Bank.' Patrons also enjoy various exclusive social events such as an autumn drinks reception with senior Kew staff.

- Daniel Barker, Patrons Officer - 


Become a Kew Patron

Kew Patrons provide invaluable support to Kew, funding our vital science and conservation work as well as helping maintain our cherished Gardens and iconic heritage buildings. If you would like to find out more about joining the Kew Patrons programme, please contact Daniel Barker.
Telephone: 020 8332 3238 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm)

Find out more about becoming a Patron of Kew Gardens

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Durian - the king of fruit

By: Wolfgang Stuppy - 03 Jun 2013
The southeast Asian plant Durian has been called the King of Fruits but, like Marmite, it sharply divides opinion between those who love the incredible taste of its custard-like pulp and those who are revolted by its putrid smell.
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"It would not, perhaps, be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of the subacid juicy kinds, such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so wholesome and grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour, it is unsurpassed."

[Alfred Russell Wallace, 'The Malay Archipelago', 1869]

Photo of a Malayasian market trader selling Durian

Durians for sale at a market in Malaysia (Photo: Siew Hoon Lee) 

The King of Fruits

If there are "100 things you should taste before you die", then the durian fruit is certainly in the top ten. Hailed as the undisputed ‘King of Fruits’ in southeast Asia, to westerners this exotic delicacy can be a real ‘Marmite test’: you either love it or you hate it! However, unlike Marmite, the durian’s contentious ambiguity does not lie in its taste, which is delicious, but rather in its disagreeable smell. To give you an idea, the experience of tasting your first durian can be compared to eating custard cream with a dash of Baileys in a men’s changing room crowded with steaming athletes returning from a heavy workout and a sumptuous dinner of raw onions and garlic. Hmm...

Understandably, this may have dampened your appetite for durian. So here’s some botany first, before we delve deeper into the culinary qualities of this most infamous of fruits and discover the true significance of its outrageous smell. 

Photo of a durian fruit opened up to expose the large seeds wrapped in yellow juicy arils
A durian fruit opened up to expose the large seeds wrapped in yellow juicy arils (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Durio zibethinus

The southeast Asian genus Durio belongs to the Mallow family (Malvaceae) and comprises 20-30 species, at least eight of which are edible. The economically most important species of durian (Malay for “thorny fruit”), Durio zibethinus, has been cultivated in south-east Asia for centuries. Its large white nocturnal flowers are borne directly on the major branches (a phenomenon called ‘cauliflory’) which later have to be strong enough to carry the heavy fruits. The flowers reportedly smell like sour milk and are pollinated by bats which drink the copious nectar offered.

Photo of flowers of Durio zibethinus

Flowers of Durio zibethinus (Photo: Bryan Brunner, Montoso Gardens, Puerto Rico)

Durians are so popular in southeast Asia that there are literally hundreds of different cultivars of Durio zibethinus. This is also the only species traded internationally. You can easily pick up a durian in London’s Chinatown if you are willing to pay around £20 for one. Alternatively, you can buy a few individual seeds on a Styrofoam tray covered with cling film. As for different flavours, I have only ever seen one single variety offered in Europe, which is usually imported from Thailand - the Mon Thong variety (Mon = pillow, Thong = gold).

Photo of portions of durian seeds for sale
Portions of durian seeds for sale in Malaysia (Photo: Siew Hoon Lee)

Size and growth

The durian’s highly-prized fruits can be the size of a football and weigh up to four kilograms. On the outside they are covered by a ferociously spiny, dull green to yellowish-brown husk (duri = Malay for thorn). Inside, the fruit is divided into 5 compartments representing the five carpels from which the fruit develops. When ripe, the heavy fruits drop off the branches and split slightly from the top down along 5 distinct, preformed lines which correspond to the median lines of the carpels. At this stage the fruits begin to emit their infamous ‘body odour’ that has been variously described as resembling a blend of sweat, faeces, unwashed socks or a mix of rotten garlic and onions. 


Photo of the spiky outer husk of a durian

Detail of the spiky outer husk of a durian (top) and (below) the tip of the fruit as it begins to split when it’s ripe (Photos: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Durian products

Disliked by most Europeans and banned from the underground in Singapore, the durian is treasured by people all over Asia and revered as the veritable ‘King of Fruits’. What seems like a dubious admiration does not reflect a twisted olfactory preference, but a fondness for the extraordinarily delicious taste of what lies inside the malodorous pod. The people of southeast Asia don’t just enjoy the fresh fruits. Durians are used to make all kinds of mostly sweet treats like pastes, cakes, cookies, milk shakes, ice cream, chips, candies and lots more. 

Photo montage of durian delicacies

Southeast Asian delicacies made with durian, e.g. ice cream, cake, durian puff and candies (Photos: Siew Hoon Lee & Wolfgang Stuppy) 

Wallace on durian

The edible part of the durian consists of the white or cream to golden-yellow arils (= seed appendages) covering several very large (c. 2 x 6 cm), chestnut-brown seeds. When the fruits are ripe, the hard tissue of the yellowish arils disintegrates into a custard-like cream whose consistency and flavour has been described as a tantalising mixture of nuts, spices, bananas, vanilla and onions. After his first visit to Borneo, the great 19th century naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote:

The Durian grows on a large and lofty forest tree, somewhat resembling an elm in its general character, but with a more smooth and scaly bark. The fruit is round or slightly oval, about the size of a large cocoanut, of a green colour, and covered all over with short stout spines the bases of which touch each other, and are consequently somewhat hexagonal, while the points are very strong and sharp. It is so completely armed, that if the stalk is broken off it is a difficult matter to lift one from the ground. The outer rind is so thick and tough, that from whatever height it may fall it is never broken. From the base to the apex five very faint lines may be traced, over which the spines arch a little; these are the sutures of the carpels, and show where the fruit may be divided with a heavy knife and a strong hand. The five cells are satiny white within, and are each filled with an oval mass of cream-coloured pulp, imbedded in which are two or three seeds about the size of chestnuts. This pulp is the eatable part, and its consistency and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy; yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact to eat Durians is a new sensation, worth a voyage to the East to experience.."  [Alfred Russell Wallace 1869: 'The Malay Archipelago'] 


Singapore Underground Sign: No Durians

As much as the people of southeast Asia love durians, because of the smell they leave behind it is forbidden to carry them on the underground in Singapore (Photo: Siew Hoon Lee)

Bad smell and seed dispersal

Believe you me, if you have never tried a durian before, you will never have tasted anything so amazingly rich and complex in your life. I absolutely love durian, but I have seen fellow Europeans unable to share my enthusiasm because they simply could not overcome the unsavoury associations conjured up by the durian’s bad smell. As a scientist, I am looking for a logical explanation which helps me to understand the durian’s offensive stench. It is pretty obvious that it all boils down to the durian’s strategy of getting its seeds dispersed.

The durian’s dull green to brownish colour and odour strongly suggest that the fruit is adapted to be dispersed by mammals. Most mammals are colour-blind or have just dichromatic vision but a very keen sense of smell. They rely much more on their noses than their eyes to find food or sense approaching predators.

Weirdly, heavy, sickly and sometimes yeasty scents with olfactory components of fermenting fruit and ‘mammalian body odour’, which we humans find repulsive, are very attractive to many (other) mammals. What’s more, the fact that the durian drops to the ground when ripe, combined with its large size, heavy weight and tough husk indicate that only large terrestrial animals with a mouth big enough to swallow the bulky seeds and sufficiently strong and dexterous to break open the spiky armour are invited to the meal.

Photo of the thick husk of a Durian fruit

Only larger animals have the strength to break through the spiky husk of a durian (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Seed dispersers and pulp thieves

It is therefore not surprising that a durian that has landed on the ground and begun to emit its more than recognizable smell attracts a variety of big beasts including elephants, Asian rhinos, orangutans, gibbons, monkeys (e.g. long-tailed macaques), tapirs, wild boar, deer and even carnivores like tigers, leopards, civets and sun bears. Any remains of the durian left by these big animals are scoured by smaller durian-lovers ranging from squirrels to beetles and ants. Naturally, such a rich and delicious treat like the durian attracts a lot of attention, both from genuine bona fide seed dispersers, the durian’s actual ‘target customers’, as well as from pulp thieves. The latter indulge in the nutritious pulp but actually do not help to disperse the seeds and sometimes even destroy them in which case they become seed predators.

Ideal dispersers either carry the seeds over a significant distance (e.g. 20 m or so) and discard them undamaged after eating off the aril (e.g. long-tailed macaques) or they swallow the seeds whole and defecate them intact (e.g. elephants, rhinos). Pulp thieves, on the other hand, would eat the pulp but then fail to transport the seeds (e.g. sun bears). It is not easy to find reliable scientific information about the dispersal ecology of durian. However, during one very interesting field study carried out in Sabah, Malaysia long-tailed macaques turned out to be the most efficient bona fide disperser of the seeds of Durio zibethinus

Photo of an exposed durian seed with aril
A single seed inside a durian, still wrapped in the delicious yellow aril (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Pygmy elephants and orang utans

Although elephants are known to eat durians and pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) were present in the study area, they were not observed to help with dispersal. Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), also very likely to be native bona fide dispersers in Sabah, were absent from the study area. Most surprisingly, orang utans, long known to be avid consumers of durians and generally deemed to be among its primary dispersers, turned out to be mere seed predators. The apes pluck immature durians and eat both aril and seeds, leaving only the seed coats which they spit out after their meal.

Photo of an Orang Utan (Pongo pygmaeus) in Borneo eating a durian

Orang Utan (Pongo pygmaeus) in Borneo eating a durian (Copyright © Konrad Wothe;

This is somewhat surprising because with their flimsy brown seed coats, durian seeds rely on chemical rather than physical protection (see my post about the ice-cream bean) in the form of toxic fatty acids (e.g. sterculic and malvalic acids) present in the tissue of the storage embryo. Perhaps orang utans have developed some kind of immunity or their bodies simply tolerate higher doses of these toxins than other animals. Toxins aside, durian seeds are highly nutritious, consisting of nearly 50% carbohydrates with little protein and fat. Boiling or roasting turns them into an edible starchy treat, a source of food long used by native peoples.

Another study showed that although tapirs eat durians and could therefore act as bona fide dispersers, the seeds fail to germinate after passing through the animal’s gut.


I am very grateful to my Singaporean friends Siew Hoon Lee and Hong Ling Lim for taking lots of photos of all things durian for this blog. Many thanks also to Konrad Wothe ( for his kind permission to use his photograph of an Orang Utan eating a durian, and to Bryan Brunner from Montoso Gardens in Puerto Rico for allowing us to use his photograph of the flowers of Durio zibethinus

- Wolfgang Stuppy -

P.S.: I am not quite sure how but, allegedly, durian acts as an aphrodisiac. As a Malay saying goes: "When the durians fall down, the sarongs fly up!"


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Would you like to work at the Millennium Seed Bank?

By: Jobs at Kew - 03 Jun 2013
How would you like to work in the world’s biodiversity hot spot? If so an exciting opportunity to join the team here at the Millennium Seed Bank is now available!
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We are looking for two enthusiastic individuals passionate about the environment to join as Seed Processing Assistants. This job is based in the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, West Sussex.

MSB cleaning seeds

A seed processing assistant at work

In this interesting and varied role you will work with the seeds from arrival, ensure their safe storage, and carry out germination tests. Read more about how we process seeds

So if you fancy a unique hands-on opportunity to contribute to the largest ex situ plant conservation project in the world, please apply via the application page:

Seed Processing Assistant application page

Closing date for applications: 13th June 2013

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Seed collecting on Mount Kilimanjaro

By: Emma Williams - 18 Apr 2013
Kew Gardens botanist Emma Williams recounts her experiences on a recent seed collecting expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
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The Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) and four Tanzanian organisations have been working together to conserve the Tanzanian flora through ex-situ seed conservation since 2006. I joined John Elia a botanist at the National Herbarium of Tanzania (NHT) and Lourance Mapunda a seed scientist at the Tanzania National Plant Genetic Resources Centre (NPGRC) on a seed collecting trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in February.

Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as being the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895m high, is also a UNESCO world heritage site, part of Conservation International's “Eastern Afromontane” global biodiversity hotspot, and a popular tourist destination. It has a large flora of around 2,500 plant species with many Tanzania endemic species (i.e. species that are only found in Tanzania)... Lots of potential for a successful seed collecting trip! 

Two Peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro

View of the two peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kibo (on the left) and Mawenzi (Image: Emma Williams)

Before the trip began I produced a target list of species for our fieldwork focusing on Tanzanian endemic species and those restricted to high altitudes. Mountain species are particularly vulnerable to climate change. As the climate warms, alpine plant species move higher up the mountain and are at risk of extinction as their area of suitable habitat to live in decreases. I used the recently finished 'Flora of Tropical East Africa' to find descriptions of my target species, and studied herbarium specimens at Kew to find locations on Mount Kilimanjaro where they had been recorded before. 

Dendrosenecio kilimanjari

Dendrosenecio kilimanjari – a Mount Kilimanjaro endemic and one of our target species. Some of these plants could be several hundred years old. (Image by Emma Williams)

I flew to Tanzania at the end of January and spent a few days in Arusha studying specimens at the National Herbarium, organising the trip logistics and obtaining a collecting permit from the Tanzania National Park Authority who manage Mount Kilimanjaro.

The first part of our trip was a trek up the Marangu route on the south east side of the mountain. We began at the park gates at 1,900m in tropical forest and would eventually walk up to 4,100m, at almost the limit of vegetation on the mountainside. We hired porters and a cook to help with the trip; once we started walking up the steep trail we were certainly grateful that we didn't have to carry all our bags ourselves! We stayed in small mountain huts at Mandara camp (2,700m) and Horombo camp (3,700m). Although it was sunny and warm during the day the temperature quickly dropped at night. 

Emma Williams and Tanzania Field Team

Fieldwork team of Emma Williams (2nd from left), Lourance Mapunda (3rd from left) and John Elia (1st on right) with our porters at the start of the Marangu route. (Image by Emma Williams)

The flora and scenery on the route were spectacular. We found 3 species endemic to the mountain in flower - the stunning giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari), Euryops dacrydioides and Lobelia deckenii which was also fruiting so we made a good seed collection. We made 17 seed collections on our six day trek. For each seed collection we also took herbarium specimens to identify back at Kew’s Herbarium, a GPS recording of our location, and filled in a data sheet with all the information about the collection. 

Lobelia deckenii

Lobelia deckenii – a Mount Kilimanjaro endemic, now conserved at NPGRC and the MSBP seed banks. (image by Emma Williams)

For the rest of our field trip we carried out day-trips up part of two other routes on the south of the mountain. On the Machame route we collected seeds in a lush tropical rainforest with tree ferns, impatiens and epiphytic orchids and ferns. Whilst the Shira Plateau route was drier and dominated by Erica, Hypericum (St John's Wort) and many species of Asteraceae (the daisy family).

At the end of the trip we had made 31 seed collections and taken 21 herbarium specimens of plants in flower which we can target on future trips. The seeds will be cleaned at NPGRC and each collection will be divided into two. Half will be kept in cold storage in Tanzania and the other half will be sent to be stored at the MSBP. We are now planning our next trip to Mount Kilimanjaro in December and hope to explore some of the other routes on the mountain.

- Emma -


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Tracking black rhinos in Zambia

By: Paul Smith - 06 Mar 2013
Critically endangered black rhino have recently been reintroduced to the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Paul Smith, an expert in the vegetation of the area, is helping to identify the plant species that Rhinos rely on for their survival.
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Paul Smith, Head of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, carried out a vegetation survey of the North Luangwa National Park back in the 1990s. Now he's returned to the Park to help with the black rhino reintroduction project. He has been studying the plants and habitats that black rhinos prefer and keeping a daily record of his activities. Read his daily diary below.

Photo of a black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) (Image courtesy of Save The Rhino International)

Wednesday 27th February

I set off at seven this morning accompanied by two game scouts armed with AK 47s and a rhino tracking device. My assistants are called Chambo and Michael.

Photo of two trackers stand by a bush eaten by rhino

Chambo and Michael standing by a shrub, Combretum zeyheri, browsed by black rhino.(Image: Paul Smith)

We find a rhino!

We headed west and then turned south, parallel with the Muchinga escarpment into the territory of a male rhino called Kango.  We located Kango with the tracking device (he has a radio transmitter collar), but he caught wind of us when we were about 40 yards away. He took off with quite a hullabaloo – fortunately, downwind and away from us. Rhinos are big, heavy animals and the last thing you want is two tons of irate rhino coming at you through thick bush. As soon as he had crashed away, we were able to pick up his spoor and backtrack the route he had taken in the night. Black rhino tend to do their browsing (eating shrubs and trees) at night and lie up during the day. His tracks were easy to follow in the soft ground, and Chambo (from the Bisa tribe), in particular, is a good tracker.

We followed the rhino's route for a mile or so, and it was clear that he hadn’t been stopping during that part of his journey because there was no sign of any browse bites on the vegetation along the way. He left regular middens to mark his territory until he got to a small stream. There we picked up lots of evidence of what he had been eating.

What was he eating?

We recorded signs of browsing on the following species: Combretum zeyheri (Mufuko – Bisa); Ormocarpum kirkii (Mupulupulu - Bisa); Dichrostachys cinerea cinerea (Lupangala – Bisa, Senga); Argyrolobium sp.; Duosperma crenatum (a favourite); Lannea humilis; Jasminum stenolobum; Commelina bracteosa (blue flower);Ocimum americanum (Lwena – Bisa); Dalbergia melanoxylon; Pterocarpus rotundifolius (Muchalala – Bisa); Acacia tortilis; Markhamia zanzibarica; Feretia aeruginescens; Cissus cornifolia; Siphonochilus sp.; Premna senensis; and Phyllanthus reticulatus.


Photo from an airplane looking down at an African landscape

Tracking radio-collared black rhino from the air. (Image: Paul Smith)

It is interesting that he prefers to eat in the riverine area where most of these species occur. At this time of year with plenty of forage around, he appears to prefer the soft stuff in the understorey near the ground. We got back into camp at lunchtime with some useful, new data.


Thursday 28th February

Up at 5.30 this morning, I flew with Ed across the valley to drop some supplies to game scouts on the other side of the Luangwa river. Beautiful views in the early morning. We saw elephants, zebra, wildebeest, eland and then a pride of 15 lions following a buffalo herd on the Mwaleshi river. Back for breakfast at seven, then out with my companions, the game scouts Chambo and Michael, to do our first rhino browse transect.

Photo of two African guides in woodland

Game scouts Chambo and Michael helping with the rhino browse transect (Image: P. Smith)

Trying to estimate how much food is available

Black rhinos are exclusively browsers, meaning they eat only woody plants. White rhinos, in contrast, are grazers, i.e. they prefer grass. Unlike yesterday, where we simply back-tracked a rhino to see what he had been eating, the task before us today was to gather information on the amount of available browse in the rhino sanctuaries. To do this we were driven out to our starting point six or seven kilometres from the camp, and we walked back on a 300 degree bearing, recording the available woody plants in each of the three habitats we passed through, noting some exotic local fauna, like this chameleon.

Photo of a chameleon in woodland

Chameleon on Brachystegia shrub in the miombo woodland (Image: P. Smith)

We started in miombo woodland which is very dense, recording all browse in touching distance of our path (a metre each side), estimating the volume of woody plant material available under two metres, i.e. in reach of a rhino. After recording five pages of miombo browse (around 200 plants) we were interrupted by a herd of elephants, and decided to move on to the next habitat - Combretum-Terminalia wooded grassland. From there we came to riverine woodland and grassland, recording all species within rhino range as we passed. We eventually got back to camp at one o’clock. The same procedure was followed this afternoon in a different part of the park. We got back in at about 5.30, having recorded some 800 individual plants, ready for a cold beer.

Photo of Bauhinia petersiana

Bauhinia petersiana, thicket species favoured by rhino, in flower (Image: P. Smith)

Planning for the future

Our two transects today were marked with orange spray paint on occasional trees along our route, and as waypoints on the GPS. This means that these transects can be walked again in October at the end of the dry season to compare the amounts of available browse. This is when the rhinos are likely to be most hungry, and the data we are gathering will help the park managers to measure the carrying capacity of the current rhino sanctuaries. This, in turn will help ensure that stocking levels are appropriate. If this seems like a lot of trouble to go to, it is worth remembering that black rhinos are critically endangered. In South Africa alone, it is estimated that a rhino is poached every 14 hours for their horns. According to TRAFFIC, the major market is the far east where the horns are used as a hangover cure amongst other things.



Friday 1st March

No flight this morning. We headed out by car south, and then west along the Mwaleshi river. The riverine vegetation here is very productive, being associated with deep, alluvial soils. The result is plenty of vegetative biomass. It is very green at this time of year.

Photo of three African men in a forest clearing

Transect team above the Mwaleshi after a morning's work (Photo: Ed Sayer)

Near the river, on the flood plains is mainly grassland, interspersed with a few shrubs and trees such as Acacia sieberiana and Kigelia africana (the sausage tree). Then, as you move away from the river, you come into the thicket, dominated by Combretum obovatum and then Combretum fragrans and the ‘monkeybread’ Piliostigma thonningii. As you gain higher ground, Terminalia and Combretum zeyheri start to appear. You also see Phyllanthus reticulatus – the ‘baked potato bush’, the tiny flowers of which produce a smell like baking potatoes during the evenings in May through to September. This is one of the evocative smells of the Luangwa valley.

We get scared!

We sampled around 300 plants on our narrow transect, covering perhaps a couple of kilometres up the riverine catena. We finished at about 11 am, and headed back up to the car with Ed Sayer (Chief Technical Adviser in North Luangwa) leading the way, Chambo and Michael behind him and me bringing up the rear. Ed stepped over a Mocambique spitting cobra without noticing it, but Chambo coming second jumped a foot in the air as it raised its head and inflated its hood. We rapidly retreated, and it went on its way. I got a fuzzy photo on full zoom!

MSB Cobra

A glimpse of a Mocambique spitting cobra. Neither party was pleased to see each other. (Photo: P.Smith)

Back for lunch and then out again this afternoon. I got to try out the newest vehicle in camp – the aptly named Yamaha Rhino, a kind of quad bike but with a steering wheel and a gear stick. Great fun, and seems to be able to go anywhere.

MSB Zambia Yamaha rhino

Trying out the latest in off-road vehicles - the aptly named Yamaha 'Rhino'.(Photo: Ed Sayer)

We did another riverine transect this afternoon without encountering anything more dangerous than a herd of zebra. Roughly a thousand plants sampled in our transects so far. It will be interesting to see how heavily they have been browsed by the end of the dry season.



Saturday 2nd March - I get covered in insects!

This morning we headed out to the east of the park into Combretum-Terminalia woodland and thicket. We were on the trail of two rhinos: Londekeni, whose name means ‘Lost but found’ in Bemba; and Mwaiseni (‘Welcome’). We travelled out to the thicket in the Yamaha Rhino, which you will recall from yesterday has no windscreen. While I was prepared to take a lot of grass seed on board, I was less prepared for the wide range of spiders, stick insects, beetles and caterpillars that live on the tall grass stems in the middle of the road.

Photo of the author covered in flies


At one point we had to stop to let a golden orb spider out – 10cm across and with a nasty bite. Apart from this minor drawback the vehicle did very well – no terrain was too difficult to cross. We arrived in the rhino’s territory at about 9am, and climbed an observation tower to scan for rhinos. We found Londekeni first, and tracked him to where he was hiding in some thick vegetation. I caught sight of his broad back as he beat a retreat when he heard us coming. We were able to track his movements back into the thicket, though - from where he had slept to his forays for food.

Photo of a man on top of an observation tower

Tracking rhinos from an observation tower

The species we recorded with rhino bites were: Baphia massiensis, Maerua pritwitzii, Phyllanthus sp., Combretum molle, Catunaregum spinosa, Aneilema nicholsonii, Commelina africana, Holarrhena pubescens, Boscia angustifolia, Strychnos potatorum, Excoecaria bussei (a favourite), Barleria prionitis and one other Acanthaceae as yet unidentified. We then carried out a browse availability transect in the thicket area.

Photo of an African guide showing a bush which has been eaten by rhino

Morgan with rhino-browsed Holarrhena

Lots of interesting species around at this time of year, and I was able to take some good photographs for a book on the trees and shrubs of the Luangwa valley that I am working on. We also found two new species for the park’s checklist – the Strychnos potatorum mentioned above, and Philenoptera bussei, another shrub/small tree with signs of elephant browse damage. Back at 1pm for lunch, and then out again to do a riverine transect on the Lubanga river.


Sunday 3rd March

Out with my team again at 8am this morning, this time on the trail of a rhino called Bukwele (‘rhino’ in Bemba). We set out in the Landcruiser today because the river has risen a couple of feet, and we would have drowned the Yamaha had we tried to cross in it. The added bonus was no flies in the face today. Bukwele still receives some supplementary feed, so we started at his trough, which is out in the scrub savanna vegetation about 10 km from the camp. According to his radio collar signal, Bukwele was a long way to the south, so we didn’t see him. Instead, we turned north, and put a long transect in through mopane scrub, Combretum-Terminalia-Diospyros wooded grassland and a riverine gully that a large herd of buffalo had recently vacated. Lots of mud and cowpats to avoid.

Photo of an African elephant in a river

Elephant on the Lubanga river

Early March is a great time to be in the valley. Everything is very green with many species in flower. Gladiolus dalenii (orange) and Gladiolus gregorius (purple) dot the landscape along with many pink Ipomoea (morning glory), and Hibiscus species of various colours. Bukwele had been eating Duosperma crenatum, a small but abundant herb, which we had noted as a favourite of Kango’s on day one.

Photo of Gladiolus gregarius

Gladiolus gregarius

My game scout assistants have a detailed knowledge of their local flora and we have been comparing local and Latin names. The one that has flummoxed them is Pseudolachnostylis maprouneifolia, a tree that is simply known as ‘Msolo’ in these parts. You can guess which name we have been using on the transect forms.

Hot and humid today, with storms gathering over the escarpment. We were glad to head for home at lunchtime. This afternoon was spent writing up the data of the past few days.


Monday 4th March - the final day

Today marks my last day in the valley, so my time was spent tying up loose ends.

Photo of the game scouts' hut

My home for the past week

This morning Michael, Chambo and I went back to a couple of our transect sites to identify some of the ground cover species. During my time here in the early 1990s I made photocopies of my herbarium collections. These are still here, and a very useful reference library. We started in the mopane scrub where the main ground cover species are Indigofera schimperi (pink flowers), Cyphostemma gigantophyllum, Ampelocissus africana and Jasminum stenolobum (a rhino favourite). We also found two Vigna climbers in abundance – Vigna vexillata and Vigna frutescens.

From the mopane we went on to the thicket nearer the river and were able to find a couple of early flowering individuals of Hygrophila auriculata (rhino thistle) and Spermacoce princeae, which are both eaten by the rhinos. There we found a beautiful lagoon with a family of Egyptian Geese on it. We counted seven goslings.

MSB lagoon Zambia

Lagoon with Egyptian goose just disappearing out of sight

Then back to camp for an afternoon of data crunching. We have collected data on about 3000 individual trees and shrubs, and that is going to take some time to put on the computer. The whole thing will have to be done again in September/October but at least we have worked out the methodology, so this should be relatively straightforward. The contrast between available browse in the rainy season (now) and the dry season (then) will be very interesting – and will vary between the habitats we have sampled.

Finally, a big thank you to my hosts Ed Sayer and Claire Lewis. It has been great to be back in the Luangwa valley in such good company.

- Paul -


Related links


North Luangwa Conservation Project Facebook page

Millennium Seed Bank Partnership

North Luangwa National Park

More about the critically endangered  Black Rhinos

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