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Ecol Appl. 2007 Mar;17(2):558-68.

Elephants, fire, and frost can determine community structure and composition in Kalahari Woodlands.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, New Jersey 08544, USA.


Fire, elephants, and frost are important disturbance factors in many African savannas, but the relative magnitude of their effects on vegetation and their interactions have not been quantified. Understanding how disturbance shapes savanna structure and composition is critical for predicting changes in tree cover and for formulating management and conservation policy. A simulation model was used to investigate how the disturbance regime determines vegetation structure and composition in a mixed Kalahari sand woodland savanna in western Zimbabwe. The model consisted of submodels for tree growth, tree damage caused by disturbance, mortality, and recruitment that were parameterized from field data collected over a two-year period. The model predicts that, under the current disturbance regime, tree basal area in the study area will decline by two-thirds over the next two decades and become dominated by species unpalatable to elephants. Changes in the disturbance regime are predicted to greatly modify vegetation structure and community composition. Elephants are the primary drivers of woodland change in this community at present-day population densities, and their impacts are exacerbated by the effects of fire and frost. Frost, in particular, does not play an important role when acting independently but appears to be a key secondary factor in the presence of elephants and/or fire. Unlike fire and frost, which cannot suppress the woodland phase on their own in this ecosystem, elephants can independently drive the vegetation to the scrub phase. The results suggest that elephant and fire management may be critical for the persistence of certain woodland communities within dry-season elephant habitats in the eastern Kalahari, particularly those dominated by Brachystegia spiciformis and other palatable species.

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