We're setting fire to the Serengeti Ecosystem! Land within Tanzanian National Parks is deliberately burned by the management to maintain savanna grasslands for popular animals such as giraffes, elephants, wildebeest and zebra. Much of Serengeti is burnt each year, some areas twice. We know it is vital for keeping grassland areas from becoming wooded, but we don't understand the wider effects on the ecosystem. Would burning more often, less often or at different times of year be better? Do yearly fires kill tortoises? How much less fire do we need to restore the riverside forests? Can burning late in the dry season still keep grasslands open? How do birds cope? What about the ants and termites that keep nutrients cycling? How can we balance the needs of ALL the plants, animals and processes that operate? Should we burn less but in a more focused way, should we burn more, or is the current management actually optimal?
We've brought together an international team of scientists to answer these questions, and many more, through a large-scale burning experiment around Serengeti. Over the next few years we'll be burning different plots of land in different ways: as it's currently done in the park, as undertaken in the surrounding areas by pastoralist peoples, as done previously in the Park, etc. We'll be looking at the effects on everything from soil chemistry to ants and vegetation, from birds and reptiles to lions and elephants!
The Serengeti Ecosystem is one of the last remaining wilderness areas on our planet and boasts one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world: the great wildebeest migration. Natural wildfires have helped maintain this area as savanna in the past, and now burning is continued by the park management in a more controlled way. Used correctly, burning can maintain the balance between grasslands and woodlands that create the iconic landscapes of the savanna. However, when done badly, it can remove the plants that provide vital food for hungry animals in the dry-season, or destroy the nests and homes of other creatures. The way fire has been used by managers within the Serengeti Ecosystem has changed over time, but the ecological impact of this shift has never been measured. Fires are also set more frequently in Serengeti than in many other savanna areas. What impact does that have? With our results, we will work with land managers and governmental agencies to ensure that optimal burning regimes are implemented in savanna protected areas throughout Africa. This will benefit not just the larger mammals, but also the neglected and overlooked smaller creatures that call Serengeti home.
The Serengeti covers a huge area of wild and remote terrain. Our team need a vehicle to get about in order to adequately monitor the impacts of large-scale burning, and also to protect them from some of the more dangerous animals! The money raised through this campaign will purchase a suitable off-road vehicle that will be used by the team. Any extra money will be used to fund Tanzanian students to work alongside the international experts in the field, gaining valuable experience and expertise.
We expect to discover exactly how different fire management options impact the ecology of the Serengeti. We anticipate that our results will help inform managers of the best way to maintain and enhance the biodiversity of the Serengeti and other savanna areas across Africa.
I first came to East Africa to work as an ornithologist in Kenya 17 years ago and immediately fell in love with the diversity of this region. Since then I've been returning here to work whenever possible, and there's nowhere I'd rather be than walking around the bush! I currently work as a researcher and lecturer in ecology for the University of York in the UK, but have been fortunate to be based full-time in Tanzania since 2009, undertaking work on climate change in the savanna. I'm passionate about the wildlife of this region, and love to share my interests with whoever will listen, from safari-guides to unsuspecting tourists, and including my wife and children! Since I've been in Tanzania, I've realized that, although climate change and other environmental issues will have major impacts here, the single most important research question of practical consequence to conservation in this region concerns fire management. Talking to conservationists and managers across the region I find a wealth of different ideas about fire, but startling little real information. With managers asking me for advice all the time, it made sense to develop a program of research to properly answer these questions. It also provides yet another reason for me to keep doing fieldwork in some of the most spectacular regions of the world!