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The Termite Mounds of Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is a place like nowhere else on earth. It’s a vast swampy inland delta where a river disappears instead of emptying into an ocean. The Okavango River arises in the Angola highlands in the north, carrying rainwater from the mountains. It takes a couple of months for this water to reach the Kalahari, flooding the desert and turning it into a watery paradise that attracts all kinds of animals from kilometers around creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. The floodwater drives millions of termites from their shelters in the large mounds and they become prey to birds, reptiles and small carnivorous mammals.

Termite Mounds of Okavango Delta

A termite mound and acacia in Okavango Delta, Botswana. Image credit: Hector Garcia Serrano/Shutterstock.com

Termite mounds are a unique feature of the landscape across most of Northern Botswana, but it is in the Okavango Delta where they appear massive. This is because of the shallow water table, which forces the termites to build their nest above the ground, rather than below to prevent the nest from being flooded. When the floodwater comes in, these mounds become tiny islands of refuge for the wild animals.

Termite mounds can be very complicated and large. Inside the mound is an extensive system of tunnels and conduits that serves as a ventilation system for the underground nest. In order to get good ventilation, the termites will construct several shafts leading down to the cellar located beneath the nest. The nest itself is a spheroidal structure consisting of numerous gallery chambers.

Termite Mounds of Okavango Delta

A female leopard lies on top of a termite mound in Okavango Delta, Botswana. Image credit: LMIMAGES/Shutterstock.com

Aside from the termite themselves, the nests are home to a symbiotic fungus that enriches the soil by elevating the levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. The National Geographic writes:

In a symbiotic relationship dating back millions of years, the termites exit the mound through long foraging tunnels and return with their "intestines full of chewed grass and wood, which they defecate upon their return, and other workers assemble these 'pseudo-feces' into several mazelike fungus combs," Turner explains.

The termites then seed the comb with spores of fungus, which sprout and dissolve the tough cellulose into a high-energy mixture of partially digested wood and grass. For the termites, the fungus functions as a sort of external stomach, but the fungus gets the better deal. Ensconced in elaborate termite-built combs and constantly tended, the fungus receives multiple benefits, including food, water, shelter, and protection.

The redistribution of termite worked soil often changes the physical and chemical properties of the land, such as improving the ability to retain water. Researchers have found that sorghum and maize plants grown on soil enriched by termite mounds grow between three and eight times faster, and also show correspondingly greater yield. Ironically, termites are also considered pests. They destroy crops and seedlings and cause significant losses. Some termites attack wood and furniture.

Termites are a part of Botswana’s everyday life. The tiny winged insect is a popular food, eaten for its high protein and fat content. They are also used to feed domesticated fowl and chicken. Termites are used as medicine to treat wounds and to treat the sickness of pregnant women. Sometimes pregnant women will eat the soil from termite mounds itself, believing it helps in the development of the fetus. A practice known as geophagia, it often turns into addiction leading to adverse health effects.

Termite Mounds of Okavango Delta

A coconut tree grows out of a termite mound in Okavango Delta. Image credit: Moehring/Shutterstock.com

Termite Mounds of Okavango Delta

A giraffe walks behind a termite mound in the bushland of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Image credit: Simon Greig/Shutterstock.com

Termite Mounds of Okavango Delta

A large African termite mound in the wilds of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Image credit: Garreth Brown/Shutterstock.com

Termite Mounds of Okavango Delta

Termite mound at the Okavango Delta. Image credit: Matthias Kestel/Shutterstock.com

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