ABOVE: Elephants feeding on Ficus racemosa fig fruits  along the banks of the Kinabatangan river in Sabah.  Elephants love the figs but will not eat the leaves.  Illustration by Karen Phillipps

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The Tabin River in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah. Ficus racemosa trees are one of the most common trees that grow along the river bank which is crisscrossed by numerous elephant trails. The tree on the left is Ficus racemosa. Further upriver another Ficus racemosa tree has fallen across the river.

 

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Beyond the  fallen Ficus racemosa fig tree, two elephants are having a bath  in the river. The leaves of the Ficus racemosa are easily accessible but the elephants are not interested in eating them because of toxins in the leaves. Without these toxins Ficus racemosa would have been eliminated from Borneo’s river banks by elephants  long ago.
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Go back a few hundred years to an era when Borneo was covered in unending forest. Apart from  small tree fall and landslide gaps the only open areas  in Borneo where pioneer plants such as this Etlingera ginger could grow were the banks of  Borneo’s numerous rivers.
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The key to understanding pioneer  plant ecology in Borneo is to understand the process of river formation. Rivers are constantly  eroding the soil from one bank and depositing it on another bank. This  “creative destruction” is constantly felling tall  forest trees  on one bank and providing a constantly changing ribbon of  bare soil for newly deposited seeds on the opposite bank.

 

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These ribbons of pioneer growth along rivers are the favoured habitat of both Ficus racemosa and of the grasses favoured by grazing elephants. If you want to find a herd of elephants along the Kinabatangan  river,  head for  the patches of pioneer grasses growing on newly deposited banks of river silt.

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Fig leaves are so popular as food for elephants that it is impossible to grow most species of figs in the ground in areas inhabited by elephants. However the Ficus racemosa  in the photo above is able  to grow in prime elephant habitat as a result of  evolving poisonous leaves.