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Do elephants influence the organisation and function of a South African grassland

Parker, D.M., Bernard, R.T.F., Adendorff, J.
Rangeland journal 2009 v.31 no.4 pp. 395-403
grasslands, rangelands, Loxodonta africana, woody plants, population density, grazing intensity, rangeland soils, ecological function, aggregate stability, infiltration (hydrology), biogeochemical cycles, landscape ecology, vegetation structure, habitat fragmentation, South Africa
The impact of elephants (Loxodonta africana) on woody plants is well known. Elephants can be regarded as drivers of ecosystem functioning by, for example, decreasing woody plant litter accumulation through defoliation. However, their influence within grassland landscapes is, by comparison, very poorly understood. We assessed the influence of elephants on grassland functionality at three separate sites (1, high elephant density, long occupation time; 2, low elephant density, short occupation time; 3, no elephants) in the Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. Using landscape function analysis (LFA) we described the landscape organisation of each site, and, using visual surrogates, calculated indices of landscape stability, infiltration and nutrient cycling. The number of vegetation patches/10m of transects surveyed was higher at sites where elephant density was high (3elephants/km²) and where elephants had been present for a long time (>70 years). However, patch size was significantly smaller when elephant density/time of occupation increased, and the proportion of bare soil was higher where elephant density and occupation time were highest. In addition, stability, infiltration and nutrient cycling indices at a site scale were significantly lower where elephants were present at high densities and after a long occupation time. However, bare soil stability was not greatly affected by elephant grazing pressure, implying that a 'threshold of potential concern' has not yet arisen. We conclude that the functioning of this grassland landscape is significantly altered when elephants are present. These conclusions highlight the importance of management factors such as containment and the provision of artificial water points which may be compromising the functionality of these landscapes. We recommend ongoing assessments to inform future management decisions.