Large-scale impacts of herbivores on the structural diversity of African savannas


African savannas are undergoing management intensification, and decision makers are increasingly challenged to balance the needs of large herbivore populations with the maintenance of vegetation and ecosystem diversity. Ensuring the sustainability of Africa’s natural protected areas requires information on the efficacy of management decisions at large spatial scales, but often neither experimental treatments nor large-scale responses are available for analysis. Using a new airborne remote sensing system, we mapped the three-dimensional (3-D) structure of vegetation at a spatial resolution of 56 cm throughout 1640 ha of savanna after 6-, 22-, 35-, and 41-year exclusions of herbivores, as well as in unprotected areas, across Kruger National Park in South Africa. Areas in which herbivores were excluded over the short term (6 years) contained 38%-80% less bare ground compared with those that were exposed to mammalian herbivory. In the longer-term (textgreater 22 years), the 3-D structure of woody vegetation differed significantly between protected and accessible landscapes, with up to 11-fold greater woody canopy cover in the areas without herbivores. Our maps revealed 2 scales of ecosystem response to herbivore consumption, one broadly mediated by geologic substrate and the other mediated by hillslope-scale variation in soil nutrient availability and moisture conditions. Our results are the first to quantitatively illustrate the extent to which herbivores can affect the 3-D structural diversity of vegetation across large savanna landscapes.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences