Effect of low rainfall and browsing by large herbivores on an enclosed savannah habitat in Kenya

Savannah ecosystems in East Africa are rarely stable and can experience rapid local changes from dense woodlands to open plains. In this 3-year study there was a reduction of 16.3% in a height-stratified sample of nearly 1000 individually marked Acacia drepanolobium trees. The study was carried out in an enclosed fire-free wooded grassland habitat in the Laikipia region of Kenya. The trees were monitored from 1998 to 2001, a period that included 12 months when rainfall was 60% below average. Elephants were responsible for the loss of 40% of the trees, black rhinos 33% and 27% died from the effects of the drought. Low rainfall was correlated with increased damage as elephants switched diet from grass to trees. Heavy browsing by giraffes reduced tree growth rates and increased their susceptibility to drought. Hence the combination of low rainfall and heavy browsing by elephants, black rhinos and giraffes led to the rapid tree loss. These findings have implications for research into the causes of instability in savannah ecosystems and the management of enclosed reserves.

Last Updated
January 26, 2021
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