Do feral buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) explain the increase of woody cover in savannas of Kakadu National Park, Australia?

David Bowman, Jan Riley, Guy Boggs, Caroline Lehmann, Lynda Prior

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    Aim: To study changes in woody vegetation in both floodplains and eucalypt savanna over a 40-year period using multi-temporal spatial analysis of variation in density of a large introduced herbivore, the Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Feral buffalo built up to high densities in the study area until c. 1985, after which a control programme almost eliminated the animals. From 1990, low densities of managed buffalo were maintained inside an enclosure. We compared trends in woody vegetation when buffalo were high-density feral, low-density managed or absent. Location: The study area was located in and around a 116-km2 buffalo enclosure inside Kakadu National Park, in monsoonal northern Australia. Methods: We analysed sequences of digitized and geo-rectified aerial photographs, acquired in 1964, 1975, 1984, 1991 and 2004, to chart changes in woody cover on the floodplain and in the savanna. On the floodplain we assessed whether trees were present at these times at 14,568 points, and buffalo density was estimated from the density of animal tracks. In the savanna we estimated woody cover at pre-selected sites. Generalized linear modelling was used to analyse changes in woody vegetation, using elevation and presence of woody vegetation in neighbouring points on the floodplain, and buffalo regime and initial woody cover in the savanna. Results: Changes in animal track density reflected park-wide historical estimates of buffalo numbers. Tree cover increased in both floodplain and savanna, but this was only weakly related to buffalo density. The best predictor of whether a floodplain cell converted from treeless to woody, or the converse, was the woodiness of neighbouring vegetation. There was slightly less thickening with high buffalo densities. In savanna, low densities of managed buffalo were weakly associated with increases in tree cover relative to either high densities of feral buffalo or no buffalo. Main conclusions: Our study indicates that buffalo are not a major driver of floodplain and eucalypt savanna dynamics. Rather, the observed increase in woody cover in both savanna and flood plains concords with regional trends and may be related to increased atmospheric CO2, increasing rainfall and changing fire regimes during the study period. � 2008 The Authors.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1976-1988
    Number of pages13
    JournalJournal of Biogeography
    Volume35
    Issue number11
    Publication statusPublished - 2008

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