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When A Tree Outshone The Big Five

This week I’ve been taking my guests here in the Masai Mara to see a tree.

You’d might not think that would be top of the excitement list when the Big Five are around, but this leather leaf tree has undergone a magical transformation - one of nature’s surprises so unlikely and magical it’s difficult to describe or photograph.

The tree has become host to thousands of tiny ermine moths. Together they have created a home so delicate and beautiful it seems to belong to another world. They have encased the whole tree - from the sturdiest roots to the tiniest leaves on the furthest branches - in a seamless pure white silk sheath. It shines rose gold in the first sun’s rays and silver in the moonlight, enchanting us for a few glorious days.

No-one who sees the silk tree is unmoved by its beauty, and the scale is incomprehensible when we see the humble little creatures that have spun this weblike world. Here in silken safety the tiny moths laid their eggs, nourished the larvae and now the next generation is hatching out. One day soon they will spin another short-lived but wonder-filled silk tree.

I didn’t consider that this perfection might disintegrate quickly, so through the week I helped my guests create their photographs, thinking I’d come back when I had more time. But as the week has gone on, animals have relieved the never-ending itch of ticks and flies by rubbing their flanks on the trunk. The elements have taken their toll too: rain has pelted holes in the perfect silk stocking and the wind has swirled it to rags.

So by the time I returned to photograph it, with camp managers Roisin and Ainslie, the tree that had once been such a pristine and elegant bride resembled more of an arboreal Mrs Haversham clinging to her matted and tattered bridal lace.

So this time I'm not bringing you the tree in its perfection, but in creeping decrepitude: still fascinating, but a lot more sinister. It’s a lesson learned for me: beauty here, like life itself, is often fleeting. It won’t wait for you to capture its finest moments.

Creeping decrepitude: the silk tree is now disintegrating. Photo Trai Anfield

Trai (right) explaining to Ainslie how to get down low for the best angle! Photo: Roisin Allen

An ermine moth - weaver of the silk tree. Photo: Roisin Allen

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