Termite Mound Restoration

Fending off desertification & harbouring life in savannahs

Project information
  • Categories: rewilding
  • Status: In Progress

Nature works wonders. Termites and their mounds are a prime example. These little ecosystem engineers build mounds that aren't just aesthetically impressive, but also have an important ecological role in protecting savannahs against desertification. In the construction of their mounds, termites alter the soil structure so it retains more water. Their behaviour also increases the concentration of nutrients in the soil. These effects generate "islands of fertility" which often have a greater diversity and abundance of vegetation. Although these impacts are well researched, termites are rarely considered in direct conservation or restoration work. This long-term project aims to conserve and restore termite mounds in the degraded areas of Benin, West Africa.

Project Timeline

More about these ecological engineers

Before we explain the details of this project, let’s take a closer look at the mounds responsible for these incredible impacts and dispel the myth that termites are of no value for humans.

What do termite mounds look like? and what's impressive about them?

Termite mounds are an architectural feat of the natural world. These large tower-like structures built by termites out of soil can reach a colossal 5 metres high - the tallest structure of any non-human animal and capable of housing a million termites! Not all mounds are huge though with sizes varying depending on the species and location, some are only several centimetres tall.

Inside the mound a complex network of tunnels, corridors, and shafts are built by a colony of termites working in complete coordination. Such is the sophistication of the design that termite mounds have inspired designs of natural cooling systems in some commercial buildings. The internal structure allows for the circulation of air, regulation of temperature and gas exchange. A chamber below ground hosts the queen in what can be described as one of nature’s most robust fortresses. A claim possibly proven by the fact that termite queens are thought to be the longest living insect on earth, up to 45 years!

More impressive perhaps, is the ability for these mounds to help fight off droughts and desertification. The system of tunnels within termite mounds allows water to infiltrate the soil better. Also, they bring plant material to their mounds which fungi decompose, changing the soil composition and structure. These effects help retain moisture better and provide nutrients for plants. This means plants have a better chance of surviving and recolonising from the first rainfall following dry periods.

A tall terminte mound.
Towering termite mounds such as this one aren't just aesthetically impressive. In dry environments, their ecological value can't be overstated enough.

The Situation in Benin, West Africa

This project is targeting termite mounds in the semi-arid area of northern Benin where areas of degraded lands are known as Bowé. They’re suffering from the process of degradation called Bowalization which is the result of soil erosion and soil hardening caused by drought and desertification. This is leading to:

  • a reduced capacity to retain water; 
  • a shallow topsoil and;
  • low levels of organic matter, silt and nutrients but high amounts of potassium.

These impacts have negative consequences for the vegetation structure in the area. In the grasslands or savannahs the vegetation is typically dry forest, woodland, tree and shrub savannah and gallery forest. Bowalization is also causing a loss of biodiversity. 

The rate of bowalization is occurring at an alarmingly increasing rate (10 hectares/year from 1990-2010) in the Sudanian region of Benin. Up to 53% of the region, which makes up 6.7 million hectares of Benin, has become degraded savannah and farmland.

Drylands, Benin, West Africa.
Bowé are a distinct form of degraded land on hardened ferruginous soils.

The Threats to Termite Mounds

Although termites themselves are not considered at risk of extinction, their mounds face several threats including:

  • climate change
  • increasing drought frequency and intensity
  • human disturbances 
  • poor fire management

In the case of human disturbances, mounds are often destroyed by local people. Some farmers remove mounds because they see termites as pests and are unaware of their water-saving capabilities, thus weakening their own defences against the encroaching desert.

A termite mound surrounded by plants.
Providing a moist refuge in a drought stricken region.

The Goal of this Project

The long-term objective of this project is to prevent and revert the process of bowalization in Benin by:

  1. promoting termite mound conservation in the region and;
  2. developing and implementing methods to use termites for ecosystem restoration.

A vital component of this project’s objectives involves addressing the knowledge gap in termite mound conservation. Specifically, knowledge of the distribution of termite mounds and monitoring their changes over time.

Further to this, the project sets out to assess the feeding preferences of termites from the region. Gathering this information will contribute to the knowledge needed:

  • reproduce termites in captivity;
  • to determine which sites are suitable for termite re-introductions;
  • to identify any other necessary measures for re-introductions of termites.

Providing the development of a captive breeding methodology is successful, this research can be used as a model for future restoration efforts elsewhere.

The termite species Cubitermes spp, Trinervitermes geminatus and Microcerotermes bellicosus are most abundant in the region and therefore will be the species we focus on.

A researcher measuring a termite mound.
Gaining a better understanding of termite mounds in the region is a primary goal.

Stages of the Project

1. Mapping the Area

The first step of the project is to investigate the ecology of termite mounds in this area using technology. Drones and drone mapping software allow us to create high resolution maps of the area so we can monitor existing termite mounds and the surrounding vegetation

Utilising this technology means we can test the effectiveness of this technique to detect and monitor these mounds in a cost-efficient, non-invasive way. We will also use the maps to characterise the habitat by running statistical models to understand if the mounds are associated with a specific type of vegetation or habitat features.

Researchers using drone mapping techniques to aid conservation of termite mounds.
We are using technology as an important restoration tool.

2. Identifying termites’ feeding preferences

The next stage of the project is focused on identifying which plant species termites feed on. Termites will be collected and taken to the lab for feeding tests. These tests involve exposing the termites to different plant species and monitoring their feeding behaviour.

We expect that findings from the drone mapping and the feeding tests will compliment each other and will give us a better picture of what conditions the termites need to thrive.

Termites crawl out of their mound.
Fun fact - termites never sleep! They are always working to perform their role in the colony.

3. Attempt termite captive reproduction

The final stage of this project will attempt a captive breeding experiment. In the lab, different conditions will be recreated and tested to determine if successful breeding takes place. Having termites form colonies in captivity will:

  • facilitate more testing;
  • reduce the need to study the termites in their mounds in remote locations;
  • provide a source of termites to re-introduce to the habitat if they aren’t recolonising naturally in the ecosystem.
A view from the ground of a termite mound in grassland.
If captive breeding tests are successful, we will have a source of termites to re-introduce to area where the termites are struggling to recolonise by themselves.

Partnerships & Funding

This project provides an important opportunity for our partners at Benin’s National University of Agriculture to develop useful know-how. Dr. Elie Padonou, who is leading the project is already an expert in this field but he is taking this opportunity to mentor Caleb Babatunde, his Master’s student. In this way, the project is also contributing to the formation of the next generation of researchers in a part of the world that really needs them but where funding is hard to find.

All of this is made possible by the contributions of our members, who provide the funding through their monthly membership, and our business partners, Not Just Travel that have specifically supported this project.

More updates on this project will be released in an upcoming video. Don’t miss it by subscribing to the Mossy Earth YouTube channel.