Ecological thresholds in the Savanna landscape: Developing a protocol for monitoring the change in composition and utilisation of large trees
Amarula Elephant Research Programme, Biological and Conservation Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville Campus, Durban, South Africa; Scientific Services, Kruger National Park, Skukuza, South Africa
Background: Acquiring greater understanding of the factors causing changes in vegetation structure - particularly with the potential to cause regime shifts - is important in adaptively managed conservation areas. Large trees (≥5 m in height) play an important ecosystem function, and are associated with a stable ecological state in the African savanna. There is concern that large tree densities are declining in a number of protected areas, including the Kruger National Park, South Africa. In this paper the results of a field study designed to monitor change in a savanna system are presented and discussed. Methodology/Principal Findings: Developing the first phase of a monitoring protocol to measure the change in tree species composition, density and size distribution, whilst also identifying factors driving change. A central issue is the discrete spatial distribution of large trees in the landscape, making point sampling approaches relatively ineffective. Accordingly, fourteen 10 m wide transects were aligned perpendicular to large rivers (3.0-6.6 km in length) and eight transects were located at fixed-point photographic locations (1.0-1.6 km in length). Using accumulation curves, we established that the majority of tree species were sampled within 3 km. Furthermore, the key ecological drivers (e.g. fire, herbivory, drought and disease) which influence large tree use and impact were also recorded within 3 km. Conclusions/Significance: The technique presented provides an effective method for monitoring changes in large tree abundance, size distribution and use by the main ecological drivers across the savanna landscape. However, the monitoring of rare tree species would require individual marking approaches due to their low densities and specific habitat requirements. Repeat sampling intervals would vary depending on the factor of concern and proposed management mitigation. Once a monitoring protocol has been identified and evaluated, the next stage is to integrate that protocol into a decision-making system, which highlights potential leading indicators of change. Frequent monitoring would be required to establish the rate and direction of change. This approach may be useful in generating monitoring protocols for other dynamic systems. © 2008 Druce et al.
article; conservation biology; controlled study; ecosystem restoration; environmental planning; environmental protection; landscape ecology; nonhuman; plant density; plant ecology; population size; savanna; species distribution; tree; animal; biodiversity; chemistry; ecosystem; elephant; environmental monitoring; environmental protection; evaluation; geography; health care quality; methodology; physiology; population density; South Africa; tree; Animals; Biodiversity; Conservation of Natural Resources; Ecosystem; Elephants; Environmental Monitoring; Geography; Population Density; Program Evaluation; South Africa; Trees