Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Serengeti Story, part 1: history

So I guess this is the post I've been putting off longest. Not because it's not interesting, but because I know I'm going to forget some crucial component. But I'm just back again from a fantastic trip (thanks to all the guys at Dunia!) and decided it's definitely time to bite the bullet. However, it's going to be a long story, and I'm going to split it in two sections so I don't spend all night here (and so I stand a chance of remembering what I've forgotten before I consider the story told!). If you want more details on any of these things the essential references are the excellent series of very technical books edited by Tony Sinclair and colleagues you can get from Amazon. I've cut and pasted a few of the graphs from 'Serengeti III' into this post, hopefully 'fair use' for education...

I always start telling the Serengeti story with a bit of history, since it helps us understand how scientists have uncovered some of these things. There's no really obvious beginning to the story, but let's start with something we've already discussed on Safari Ecology - the introduction of Rinderpest to Africa in 1887. As we saw in that post, this had a massive impact on wildlife throughout Africa, the disease reaching Cape Town by 1897. The Serengeti migration was decimated, and when it was finally erradicated from the wildebeest population in 1963, there were still only around 250,000 wildebeest (see the plot below).
As you can see, once rinderpest was erradicated the wildebeest population exploded, reaching it's current total of somewhere betwen 1.2 and 1.4 million in about 1977, and this is the huge change that has let us understand so much of what happens in Serengeti.

Now, by now we should all know the 'Big 4' of savannah ecology, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that such a huge change in herbivory had a massive impact on the ecology of Serengeti, perhaps most obviously on the amount of another of the big 4 - fire. The figure below shows very clearly how the rise in numbers of wildebeest reduced the amount of fire in those northern woodland areas (essentially the woods from Seronera north).

This is clearly down to the very simple fact that wildebeest eat grass and grass is what carries fire through the savannah - more wildebeest means less grass which means less fire. And a change in the fire regime, of course, will alter the ecology too. So introduction around 1890 and then erradication of rinderpest in 1963 led to a massive change in both grazing pressure and fire frequency. It's not surprising, therefore, that massive changes occurred in Serengeti during the 1900s, most obviously the change in woodland cover. If you dig through old photos of the Serengeti / Mara area you can find some fantastic images of change. Tony Sinclair did it and came up with this beauty from 1944, that he then returned to in 1983 and took the subsequent photo (I've borrowed them from his talk available online here).
 It's pretty obvious that the woodlands vanished sometime between these two photos were taken and more detailed work suggested a rapid decline in woodland cover from about 1945 to 1980 - just the sort of delay you might expect from the increase in fire around the turn of the 1900th Century, given that fire doesn't kill savannah trees above 2m tall, so any established trees would gradually die of old age some time later.

Interestingly, as a direct consequenc of the decline in trees the national park authorities changed their fire management strategy in the 1970s from late burns at the end of the dry season and in anticipation of the rains, to one of early burns which tend to be cooler and rather less damaging to tree seedlings. At the same time, of course, the wildebeest population was recovering and the fire was declining in frequency as a consequence, so this change was probably less necessary than it seemed at the time (though everyone at TANAPA has since forgotten that the current fire strategy is a relatively new one, of course!). And as you might expect, more recently the trees have returned. Again, Tony Sinclair has some fantastic series of photos of these changes too, this from relatively close to Seronera:

(There's a whole lot more of these sorts of photos available on the web if you search for Tony's various talks.) And so the woodlands returned to Serengeti, as a consequence of the return of wildebeest and subsequent decline of fire. [It's interesting too, that savannahs globally are getting woodier, so there's a chance that this change is also related to global change too, not simply a local Serengeti effect - we might return to this in the future...]

But the story's not quite complete yet, as there's a neat twist at the end involving elephants. During  the 1970s and 1980s there was massive and nearly uncontrolled poaching of elephants throughout Serengeti, ending abruptly with the band on ivory trading in 1989. It's had a massive impact on elephant numbers in Serengeti:

At the same time, however, across the border in Kenya poaching remained under tight control, with no such dramatic change in elephant numbers. Such large herbivores can have a massive impact on the vegetation and the story in Serengeti is a particularly interesting one - Elephants walking across grassy plains often 'weed' out the tree seedlings instead of eathing grass. In woodlands they tend to leave the seedlings and concentrate on adult trees. So if there are lots of elephants it can be rather hard to turn grasslands into woodlands, even if the fire frequency is reduced. The difference between Kenya, where elephant numbers remained high throughout the period, and Tanzania, where they crashed at just the same time the fires declined, is stark. And elephants being rather clever animals, they knew where the border was and they were safe. So here's one last picture of Tony's from northern Serengeti / Mara, where the international border is clearly defined by woodlands.

Amazing to see the impacts of elephants so clearly, but also amazing to see how two different habitats (grassland and woodland) within the savannah biome can be stable under exactly the same environmental conditions - these days elephants are common both sides of the border and yet the woodlands remain in Tanzania, thanks to the different way elephants behave in grasslands from woodlands. So the history lesson ends with an important lesson about how important the initial conditions are to how a savannah looks - to turn a grassland to a woodland you need to reduce fire frequency (which can be done by increasing herbivory), but you also need to at least temporarily exclude elephants. All very complicated...

So, that's the history lesson and the broad overview of some population changes as a whole. The next post will continue the Serengeti Story by, I hope, explaining what we know about the migration and the regional differences across the ecosystem today. Hopefully it won't take so long to create either!

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