The effects of elephants and fire on vegetation at Marakele National Park, South Africa

Piet J van Staden, Hugo Bezuidenhout, Sam Ferreira, George J Bredenkamp


Elephants and fire can modify African savanna ecosystems. The authors evaluated the influence that elephants and fires had on five mountainous plant communities in Marakele National Park. These plant communities were surveyed from 1996 to 2010 with the first sampling in 1996 in the absence of elephants. Initially thirty-nine elephants, introduced in 1996, increased to 150 by 2010 while fires occurred roughly every second year. Over this period vegetation changed and in four of the five cases these associated with structural damage indices, assumed to reflect the effects of elephants. Fire played a role in one of the five mountainous plant communities. The expansion of areas available for elephants partially resulted in halting vegetation changes. The authors conclude that existing resource gradients still impose intensity of use by elephants that can degrade plant communities. In some instances elephant disturbance may facilitate fire disturbance in future. The management should focus on restoring spatial and temporal limitation of resource gradients such as water, and on how elephants use landscapes, while protecting unique plant communities in the interim.


plant species composition; vegetation structure; fire; elephant’s impact; Euclidean distance

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