• Post category:2022 / News
  • Reading time:3 mins read
14 March 2022 | By Brian van Wilgen

A review of the effectiveness of fire management in the Kruger National Park has revealed that fire can simultaneously produce positive and negative conservation outcomes. Prof Brian van Wilgen (C·I·B Core Team member), along with park scientists Dr Izak Smit, Tercia Strydom and Chenay Simms collaborated on the study, which covered eight years of fire records across 2 million hectares.

The Kruger National Park monitors the frequency and intensity of fires on an annual basis, and strives to keep these within predetermined limits to achieve desired ecological outcomes. However, these outcomes need to be assessed over longer periods to ascertain whether they are being achieved. These aims of using fire include combating bush encroachment, halting or reversing the decline of large trees, and protecting rhinos from poaching. Less intense fires are needed to protect trees, while fires of high intensity are needed to reduce woody shrub encroachment, and some areas also need to be burnt specifically to lure rhinos away from high-risk parts of the park.

Because a particular combination of fire frequency and intensity can simultaneously advance one goal and retard another, trade-offs become necessary. Applying a high-intensity fire can retard bush encroachment, but lead to increased mortality in elephant-damaged trees, and vice-versa. Burning to lure rhinos away from the park boundary can also lead to increased tree mortality. The manager’s ability to use fire to achieve desired outcomes is further affected by climatic cycles, such as periodic droughts during which burning is not possible.

Managers find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the use of fire,” said Brian van Wilgen, “and while our review has not identified clear solutions, it has clarified the trade-offs that will be needed, and is an honest portrayal of the real-life problems facing managers of complex ecosystems.”

Read the full paper

Van Wilgen, B. W., Strydom, T., Simms, C., & Smit, I. P. J. (2022). Research, monitoring, and reflection as a guide to the management of complex ecosystems: The case of fire in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Conservation Science and Practice, e12658. https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.12658

For more information, contact Brian van Wilgen at bvanwilgen@sun.ac.za

High-intensity, late dry season fire in the Kruger National Park, with marula trees (Sclerocarya birrea) in the foreground. Photo: S. Whitfield

Elephant-damaged knobthorn tree (Senegalia nigrescens) that has collapsed after an intense veldfire. Photo: IPJ Smit.