Serengeti Fire Project

Departments: Biology - with access for researchers across the University

Project Director: Dr Colin Beale

For more information you can visit the project homepage or contact serengeti-fire@york.ac.uk

Kate stands in front of a fire in a dry landscape, with some trees and shrubs. Kate is holding an open notebook and is using a mobile phone to record the event.

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‌Despite the popular portrayal of East African savannahs as icons of wilderness, the reality is that human influence in these ecosystems is pervasive and savannah ecosystems are undergoing relatively rapid change. A global increase in trees and bushes in savannahs is well known, changes in wildlife populations are widespread and rapidly changing distributions and abundances of savannah birds hint at more subtle changes to the ecosystem. These changes are likely responses to a variety of human pressures from the direct impacts of increased CO2, through the increasingly settled pastoralist communities, to the impacts of changed rainfall patterns associated with global climate change. To maintain healthy ecosystems that can support wildlife and pastoralist communities alike, land managers have one main tool available: fire. Fires are deliberately set in most savannahs every year to encourage grass growth, to control insect pests and to manage the balance of trees and grasses across the landscape. Savannah trees, grasses and animals are all adapted to a fire prone ecosystem, yet it is unclear exactly how managers should burn savannah landscapes in this changing environment: they have the option of altering both fire frequency and burning season, both factors known to influence savannah ecosystems.

This project brings together leading experts in savannah and fire ecology working in eastern and southern Africa to share knowledge and understanding of fire impacts in the savannah at the site of a new, large-scale experiment in the Serengeti ecosystem. Although eastern and southern African savannahs are ecologically relatively similar, 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. The network aims to bring together experts from across the spectrum of ecology (from mathematical ecologists to vegetation scientists, from ornithologists to entomologists) to expand our understanding of fire in savannahs generally and in the Serengeti ecosystem specifically. Through five meetings based in the experimental site in Serengeti we will gather new data and pool our expertise and data from elsewhere to address specific questions about the fundamental ecology of savannahs (e.g. first meeting - what are the fundamental differences and similarities between eastern and southern African savannahs? Finally, we will draw together the fundamental research to try and develop coherent practical guidelines to assist in making decisions about how and when to burn savannahs in order to achieve different possible management objectives.

Funding: Leverhulme Trust