Effects of repeated fire on the savanna / forest boundary

Bachelor Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

Savanna and forest/thicket can exist as alternate stable states, among others, determined by fire ecology feedbacks. Bush encroachment has become an ever-increasing trend converting grassland and savanna biomes to forest/thicket. A severe firestorm occurred in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in north-eastern South Africa in September 2008. The fire penetrated closed thicket areas and opened up the landscape. The main aim of this study was to investigate whether repeated fire, following such an extreme fire event, could trigger a biome or regime shift; in this case from forest/thicket to savanna. Fire spread is determined by grassy fuel loads, primarily grass biomass in these ecosystems, and the fire weather at the time of the fire. Grass biomass was found to have significantly accumulated (p=0.0002) in the thicket areas in just three growing seasons since 2008, which allowed fires to burn the area again in 2012. In the 2012 fires, fire intensity, measured by char height on woody stems increased in relation to the increase in grass biomass up to a point after which increasing grass biomass had no effect. The 2012 fires were able to penetrate areas opened up by the 2003 firestorm despite high canopy cover created by tree resprouting. Tree mortality was cumulative with repeated burning (21% mortality post 2008 increasing to 47% mortality in 2012). This was linked to the vigour of post 2008 resprouting with much higher mortality of trees in 2012 that had few (<4) resprouting stems. Thus, this study indicates that, a fire regime of sufficient frequency and intensities could potentially cause a vegetation state shift from forest/thicket to savanna. Therefore, this may provide management options for wildlife parks and protected areas.