Response of Savanna Fire Regimes to Changing Fire-Management Policies in a Large African National Park

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Abstract: Approaches to fire management in the savanna ecosystems of the 2-million ha Kruger National Park, South Africa, have changed several times over the past six decades. These approaches have included regular and flexible prescribed burning on fixed areas and a policy that sought to establish a lightning-dominated fire regime. We sought to establish whether changes in management induced the desired variability in fire regimes over a large area. We used a spatial database of information on all fires in the park between 1957 and 2002 to determine elements of the fire regime associated with each management policy. The area that burned in any given year was independent of the management approach and was strongly related to rainfall (and therefore grass fuels) in the preceding 2 years. On the other hand, management did affect the spatial heterogeneity of fires and their seasonal distribution. Heterogeneity was higher at all scales during the era of prescribed burning, compared with the lightning-fire interval. The lightning-fire interval also resulted in a greater proportion (72% vs. 38%) of the area burning in the dry season. Mean fire-return intervals varied between 5.6 and 7.3 years, and variability in fire-return intervals was strongly influenced by the sequencing of annual rainfall rather than by management. The attempt at creating a lightning-dominated fire regime failed because most fires were ignited by humans, and the policy has been replaced by a more pragmatic approach that combines flexible prescribed burning with lightning-ignited fires.

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