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Serengeti Fire Research Project

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Uncovering the variable roles of fire in savannah ecosystems 

The dynamics of savannah ecosystems are the result of complicated interactions between herbivory, nutrient availability, rainfall and fire.  Individual processes and specific study areas are now well known and ripe for global synthesis.  In this project a new, large-scale experiment using fire in the Serengeti ecosystem will provide the forum for a network of internationally renowned biologists to combine knowledge of the savannah ecosystem at different sites in Africa.  The Project will generate a new understanding of the processes that shape African savannahs, understanding that will have both fundamental science benefits and practical implications for savannah management.


The Network

Funded by a Leverhulme International Network grant for £124,830 for three years from September 2014, a network of specialists at British, American, East African and South African institutions is conducting multidisciplinary research into uncovering the variable roles of fire in savannah ecosystems.

The network activities revolve around 5 workshops and field trips in Tanzania.

In addition, the Network will facilitate a limited number of short-term exchanges of lab members between research groups to further the aims of the Network culminating in joint publications.


Lead investigator: Dr Colin Beale, Lecturer, Department of Biology,  University of York.


The Network Institutions

Members of the following institutions are welcome to engage with the Network, which can provide funding to attend Network activities.  Other interested people are welcome to engage with the Network, but unfortunately you would need to provide the funding.

University of York

York is a research-led university and member of the Russell group. It was ranked 8th in the 2008 RAE and is 3rd in the UK pro-rata for research income. It was Time Higher Education University of the Year in 2010.  It is implementing an ambitious Development Plan, and has invested in new academic staff, including twenty new 'Anniversary Professors', and facilities including a highly regarded technology facility within the Biology Department.  High on the agenda are interdisciplinary research, facilitated by such units as the York Environmental Sustainability Institute (YESI), an internationalisation: producing research of world-wide significance and creating links with top institutions internationally.

Dr Colin Beale has been at the University of York since 2012 and through him York will lead the network.


University of Liverpool

THe University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group of top research-led universities and in the top 1% of global univesities.  It hosts 1300 leading research staff and 30,000 students.  It has a reputation for high quality research and is committed to widening access to higher education with the UK whilst growing internationally.

Princeton University

Princeton University is a vibrant community of scholarship and learning that stands in the nation's service and in the service of all nations. Chartered in 1746, Princeton is the fourth-oldest college in the United States. Princeton is an independent, coeducational, nondenominational institution that provides undergraduate and graduate instruction in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering.

As a world-renowned research university, Princeton seeks to achieve the highest levels of distinction in the discovery and transmission of knowledge and understanding. At the same time, Princeton is distinctive among research universities in its commitment to undergraduate teaching.

Today, more than 1,100 faculty members instruct approximately 5,200 undergraduate students and 2,600 graduate students. The University's generous financial aid program ensures that talented students from all economic backgrounds can afford a Princeton education.


Wake Forest University

Since it's founding in 1834, Wake Forest University has built on its tradition of academic excellence and service to humanity.  With 4,500 undergraduates, the University provides highly personalized attention coupled with the breadth and depth of a large research institution.  The University is recognized for its outstanding academic reputation and challenging liberal arts curriculum.  Wake Forest embraces the teacher-scholar ideal, prizing personal interaction between students and faculty.


Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute

The Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) was established by Act of Parliament of the UnitedRepublic of Tanzania No 4 of 1980, with the overall responsibility of carrying out, coordinating and supervising all wildlife research in the country.  The headquarters of the Institute is located at Njiro, Arusha and comprises of four Research Centres across the country.


University of Cape Town

The University of Cape Town was founded in 1829 and is recognised globally as the top university in Africa.  It has strong research and teaching capacity, with over 5000 staff in six faculties, and a student population of over 25000.  It has a strong history of encouraging wide access irrespective of background and currently has one of the most diverse mixes in South Africa.


University of the Witwatersrand

Wits University is a centre for higher education and research of the highest quality. Its long history and reputation has been built on promoting the freedom of enquiry and the search for knowledge and truth. It continues to enhance its position as a leading research intensive university in South Africa, Africa




The Network:  People

Lead Investigator:  Dr Colin Beale, University of York

 ‌Dr Colin Beale has been at the University of York since 2012 and through him York will lead the network.  Dr Colin Beale works on a wide range of ecological problems from population dynamics and distributions to fire ecology in the African savannah. The main linking thread of his research is a fundamental interest in spatial processes in ecology, from the way individual animals move across a landscape, through the patterns and processes that shape individual species distributions, to global patterns in biodiversity. He is interested in understanding all aspects of spatial variation in ecological processes at a range of spatial scales, using and developing appropriate statistical techniques alongside an active programme of field research in the UK and Africa. Currently, many species distributions are shifting as a consequence of global climate change and he is interested in the demographic processes that drive such shifts. Much of Colin's work focusses on birds and he collaborates with conservation organisations to ensure that a variety of additional interests tackle problems of practical significance.

Partner:  Prof Andy Dobson, Princeton University

‌Prof Andy Dobson's conservation work is focused upon Serengeti region of Tanzania.  While a significant emphasis has been upon the control of pathogens that can infect both wildlife and domestic species: rabies, rinderpest, brucellosis, he is also interested in the ecology and economics of land-use change, wildlife-human interactions and ecotourism. Prof Dobson is an active partner in Serengeti BioComplexity Project, this provides a forum for everyone who works in Serengeti to interact and develop ideas that can be more broadly applied to the conservation of East African grasslands.

Prof Andy Dobson's Research Group at Princeton bring expertise in mathematical modelling of fire dynamics and Serengeti food web and more than 25 years of local experience of work in Serengeti.  The group has expertise in the modelling fire dynamics and the interactins between plant-herbivore dynamics and infectious diseases in Serengeti ecosystem.  Over the last five years Prof Dobson's group has assembled a large food web for Serengeti and general mathematical models that examine how interactions between networks of species lead, constrain or allow perturbations such as fire and disease to modify interactions throughout ecosystems.

Partner:  Dr Kate Parr, University of Liverpool

 Dr Kate Parr is a community ecologist with a particular interest in understanding how tropical grassy systems are structured, how they function and the best way to cnserve them.  Much of her work, and that of her research group, focuses on invertebrates - particularly social insects.

Dr Kate Parr's group will bring a wealth of experience of the impact of fire in the savannahs, including faunal responses to burning (invertebrates, birds and large mammals).  Her group has experience of working in the savannahs of both South Africa and Australia.  The group's expertise in invertebrate biology will be of particular importance to the network.

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Partner:  Dr Maurus Msuha, TAWIRI

Dr Maurus Msuha is a Principal Research Officer within the TAWIRI Governmental Research Institute and his involvement with the Network will aid the Network by providing datasets about wildlife and management of Serengeti Ecosystem and his considerable experience of handling and analysing these data. This will provide a solid base to develop further research.  

Dr Maurus Msuha will also provide local logistical support to the project - facilitating research permits and all administrative engagement with other Tanzanian governmental organisations.  Through Dr Msuha the Network Team will also be able to access a range of logistical support services and a network of other researchers and practical assistance to assist with workshop practicalities.  He will also provide a conduit through which the views of Tanzanian policy makers and practical conservationists can feed into and be fed information about management relevant aspects of the network.  TAWIRI has a strong relationship with other government-level organisations and a duty to provide relevant information to the government.

Prof William Bond, University of Cape Town

‌Prof Bond's interest is in the processes most strongly influencing vegetation change in the past and present, including fire, vertebrate herbivory, climate extremes, atmospheric [CO2] and habitat fragmentation. Plant-animal interactions Plant form and function. Systems studied include sub-tropical grasslands, savannas and winter rainfall shrublands.  His Research Group at the University of Cape Town bring a world-leading understanding of fire dynamics and its influence on vegetation in South Africa.  

Prof William Bond is an internationally recognised expert on savannah biology and his group has over 40 years experience of working in the South African savannahs.  Their expertise in savannah dynamics and vegetation structuring will be particularly relevant to the Network.

Partner:  Prof Michael Anderson, Wake Forest University

Prof Michael Anderson's research focuses on the ecology and conservation of grassland and savannas ecosystems. In particular, he is interested in understanding the unique co-evolution that has occurred between plants and large herbivores in African savannas and the consequences of these interactions for ecosystem processes across large scales. The majority of his research is conducted in Serengeti Ecosystem of East Africa, one of the last remaining fully functional grazing ecosystems, home to earth’s largest free-ranging ungulate herds and one of the best studied ecosystems in the paleotropics.

Prof Michael Anderson's research group at Wake Forest University will bring detailed knowledge of herbivore/plant interactions in Serengeti Ecosystem to the Network.  The group has been active in Serengeti for a decade and they have established long-term monitoring plots with the ecosystem.  The bring a detailed knowledge of Serengeti migration and the process that determine its movement across the landscape, with a particular interest in nutrients. 

Partner:  Dr Sally Archibald, University of the Witwatersrand

Dr Sally Archibald works on understanding the dynamics of savanna ecosystems in the context of global change. Her work integrates field ecological data, remote sensing, modelling, and biogeochemistry, and is strongly linked with research projects at the CSIR whereShe is a Principal Researcher in the Global Change and Ecosystems group. Sally is involved in collaborative research projects with Princeton University, Macquarie University and the University of Liverpool among others which variously work on fire-grazer interactions, inter-continental savanna comparisons, the importance of land-atmosphere feedbacks, and pursuing a global theory of fire.

Dr Sally Archibald will bring a global perspective on fire dynamics and large-scale ecosystem structural responses to fire.  Dr Sally Archibald is rated by South Africa's National Research Foundation as a 'Promising young researcher' for her work on savannah and fire ecology.  Her group will bring current experience of South African savannah ecology and a global perspective on the role of fire in grasslands.  Her expertise in fire dynamics will be particularly important. 


Dr Gareth Hempson, University of the Witwatersrand


‌I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, where I am hosted by Prof. Sally Archibald. A central theme to my research in recent years has been to further understand how herbivory shapes plant communities, and what the consequences of these modifications are ‌for system dynamics. A current research interest is in determining the conditions under which frequent grazing leads to the formation of grazing lawns, which in some cases may improve the quality of the grass sward for grazers, and when it causes a decrease in vegetation cover and a shift towards low palatability grass species – i.e. classic overgrazing responses. Grazing lawns typically act as a barrier to fire spread, and by improving grazer resources, may effect changes in the predominant top-down drivers of ecosystems at scales much larger than their own extent. These dynamics fascinate me. The Serengeti has considerable soil and rainfall variability packed into one system, and given the interaction with fire, involvement with the Serengeti Fire Research Project provides an amazing opportunity to extend the geographic range of investigations currently under way in South Africa.A second thread of my research interests, which ties in with the Serengeti Fire Research Project, are efforts to provide a spatially explicit quantification of the form and extent of herbivory pressure across sub-Saharan Africa. The intention is to use this dataset to explore large scale fire-herbivory interactions, and their consequences for vegetation patterns. The Serengeti is an ideal African system in which to investigate how herbivory shapes vegetation patterns – and even better, to investigate how this interacts with experimental modification of fire regimes.


Jason Donaldson, University of the Witwatersrand

I am currently enrolled for a PhD at the University of Witwatersrand. My Supervisors are Dr. Sally Archibald and Dr. Kate Parr.

My current work focuses on pyric-herbivory (i.e. herbivory induced by fires) in African savanna ecosystems. Specifically I am interested in how grass structure and species compositions respond to herbivory induced by burning. Fires alter the intensity and spatial distribution of grazing by attracting animals to newly burnt areas where re-growth after fires is short, palatable and nutritious. Because where, when and for how long animals graze can influence the competitive balance between grass types, I want to understand what determines under what circumstances fire has a positive and negative effect on herbivores (i.e., attracts or disperses animals). Fires vary in many ways including their spatial extent, season, intensity and frequency. This pyrodiversity is likely to have significant effects on grazer movements, as well as grazing intensity and duration. It has been demonstrated that the attraction (or ‘magnet’) effect of fires can have different long-term consequences depending on the frequency and size of fires. Similarly, it is likely that variation in fire intensity, which affects the patchiness of a burn (i.e. how much grass fuel remains unburnt), will also have implications on grazing intensity. Fire characteristics, including fire size, frequency and season (which affect intensity), are therefore likely to have significant effects on habitat heterogeneity in savannas through their indirect effects on herbivory. My main interest is in the role that these fire variables play in attracting and dispersing animals and the resultant effects on grass community structure and species composition. Research and data collection take place on large-scale experimental burn plots in the Satara region of Kruger National Park where I am currently based.


Dr Tom Morrison

Dr  Tom Morrison is a postdoctoral researcher whose work focuses on savanna ecology, demography and animal movement.  Between 2012 and 2014 he was based in Serengeti National Park studying savanna tree dynamics as part of Michael Anderson's (Wake Forest University) long-term project.  His current work examines the ways that herbivory, fire and edaphic conditions iteract to influence tree growth and survival, and how demographic aspects shape the emergent tree community.  Dr Morrison's PhD work was in the neighboring Tarangire-Manyara Ecosystem (Tanzania) where he studied demography and movement of wildebeest, using a photographic mark-recapture technique.  Other projects include improving aerial census techniques and models, developing and testing photo identification software for wildlife, and understanding the relationship between animal movement and demography.  Dr Morrison's work is motivated by a general interest in using science to support management and conservatin decision-making.

Dr James Probert, University of Liverpool

Dr James Probert is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool supervised by Dr. Kate Parr and Dr. Colin Beale.  His work focuses on the interactions between fire and herbivory in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya. The potential vegetative biomass in African savannahs is defined by bottom up processes such as rainfall and nutrient availability but also limited by the removal of vegetation by fire and herbivory.   Fire is a frequent, widespread and natural disturbance in African savannahs, savannahs which are also home to an array of large mammalian herbivores and an abundance of invertebrate herbivores. Fires alter how grazing animals use the landscape and alter grazing pressure as a result.  In turn herbivores can remove grass that would otherwise burn and modify or prevent fire spread across the landscape.  These interactions affect many aspects of savannah ecology and therefore understanding the environmental conditions and fire characteristics which attract or disperse herbivores and the interactions between fire and grazing is critical to successfully managing savannah ecosystems.‌


















East African savannahs are icons of wilderness, widely regarded as expanses where millions of animals roam free from human influence in the same way now as they did thousands of years ago.  This image, however, is false:  the human influence in these ecosystems is pervasive.  Perhaps the greatest single human impact in the protected areas of Tanzania is the use of fire as a management tool.  

Fire is a vital component of savannah ecology, with trees, grasses and animals all adapted to a fire prone ecoystem.  In most of Tanzania's protected areas, rangers set fires annually for a number of reasons, including the encouragement of new grass growth for grazers and the control of bush spread.  Recent global analysis suggests that at least for savannahs occurring in areas with less thn 1000mm of rainfall, the forest/savannah edge is maintained primarily by fire, and that in its absence many savannahs will revert to forest.

There is some debate, however, about how much animals fulfil this role when they occur at high densities and the benefits of fire in certain areas have been questioned (e.g. the Kenya wildlife service suppresses fires as 'unnatural').  To some extent, fire and grazers can be seen as competing herbivores, and increases in area burned with decreases in wildebeest numbers are recorded in Serengeti.   It is also unclear how recent changes in fire frequency and timing have impacted on the functioning of the savannah ecosystem.  The effects of fire in African savannahs are best known for South Africa, where long-term experimental research plots have been maintained for almost 60 years.  However, savannah ecosystems in South Africa are rather different to Eastern African savannahs, with lower nutrient availability, lower animal densities that are less mobile and a single rainy season (rather than two).  Political differences between the regions have previously led to limited academic exchange. In East Africa, ecosystem research in Serengeti is well developed, but the relative importance of fire and its interactions with rainfall, nutrients and large mammal herbivore densities is still relatively poorly known.  As rainfall patterns alter, many changes in East African savannahs can be expected, and are already being observed.  With this in mind, and with strong support from local land managers, a large experiment was initiated in 2012 to asses sthe impacts of different fire regimes on sites around the western Serengeti ecosytem, operating primarily in regions unfamiliar to many Serengeti researchers.


The Serengeti Fire experiment has been established by Dr Colin Beale to answer both fundamental and applied questions in ecology, and as a common resource for ecologists interested in savannah ecosystems.  With the experiment now established, this network project will bring together a diverse set of research groups to address three primary aims:

  1. To develop a broader community and ecosystem-level understanding of the east African savannah than is possible when working with a single set of ecological disciplines.

  2. To identify and understand the differences between (southern and east African) savannah ecosystems studied by the different research teams.

  3. To better understand the role of fire in the Serengeti ecosystem.

Specific hypothesis to be tested include:

  1. The change in the savannah community associated with fire regime is greatest in high productivity, high rainfall sites, but the resilience of the community in these areas to individual fires is least.

  2. Fire regime interacts with grazing regime to impact biodiversity of all trophic levels.

  3. Decreased fire frequency will shift food webs towards less stable stuctures, though the size of this shift with interaction with rainlfall and nutrient (this is a specific example of a disturbance regime that contributes to resilience).


[Link to specific activities / projects within the network]



Workshop 1 : November 2014 (short wet season) - Mwiba and Maswa

Workshop 2: July 2015 (long dry season) - Grumeti

Workshop 3:  December 2015 (short rains)

Workshop 4:  July 2016

Workshop 5: January 2017



  • TAWIRI Scientific Conference December 2015

Colin Beale presentation (PDF , 4,920kb)

Andy Dobson presentation (PDF , 2,813kb)

Colin Courtney-Mustaphi (PDF , 4,527kb)

Gareth Hempson (PDF , 8,301kb)

Other associated meetings and conferences


Contact us

Lead Investigator:  Colin Beale

Network Administrator:  Anna O'Connell





Access to files is restricted to Network Members

[Link to google drive]