Original Articles

Do we understand the causes of bush encroachment in African savannas?


Bush encroachment affects the agricultural productivity and biodiversity of 10–20 million ha of South Africa. Many people believe that we understand the causes of bush encroachment. We do not. Many people believe that either fire or heavy grazing by domestic livestock is the sole cause of bush encroachment. This is wrong. Bush encroachment occurs in many arid regions where fuel loads are insufficient for fires to be an important causal factor. Belief in grazing as the sole cause of bush encroachment stems from Walter's two-layer model. This model states that grasses typically outcompete trees in open savannas by growing fast and intercepting moisture from the upper soil layers, thereby preventing trees from gaining access to precipitation in the lower soil layers where their roots are mostly found. When heavy grazing occurs, grasses are removed and soil moisture then becomes available to the trees, allowing them to recruit en masse. The fact that many bush-encroached areas are heavily grazed means neither that grazing causes encroachment nor that Walter's model is correct. Bush encroachment is widespread in areas where there is a single soil layer and where grazing is infrequent and light. We need to move away from observational studies and these single-factor explanations. If we are to understand the causes of bush encroachment, we need mechanistic models to guide us and multi-factorial experiments to tease out the interactions among causal factors. Current disturbance-based models have many of the right elements necessary to make mechanistic predictions but need to be appropriately parameterised. Some patch dynamic models also appear to hold great promise in this regard. Field experiments carried out to date show that support for factors conventionally claimed to cause bush encroachment is underwhelming, and that rainfall amount and frequency, coupled with specific soil nutrient levels, may drive this phenomenon.

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