One of the most commonly cited, or highest-ranked, threats to conservation in Africa is, and has been, poaching – the illegal harvesting of natural resources, usually animal-derived. This includes bushmeat, bones, hides, honey and fish, among other things. The next threat is usually human encroachment or habitat loss – which generally refers to the conversion of “pristine” wilderness areas to agricultural lands. You won’t, however, see many citing fire as a major threat to conservation efforts, which is odd because it happens to the biggest environmental catalyst currently acting in Africa. That is, of course, if you exclude all forms of human activity extending as far as carbon emissions and water extraction.
Fire is most commonly referred to as a “management tool” employed by authorities or managers to shape the landscape to their specific goals or needs. However, goals and needs are highly subjective, incredibly reliant on climate variables and often not homogenous across landscapes that are a mosaic of different land ownership rights.
Why do I argue that fire is equally as threatening to conservation as poaching or human encroachment? It’s simple: poaching targets a certain section of biodiversity (animals) and does not necessarily harm the habitat to such an extent as to not function sufficiently to carry out the ecosystem services so desperately needed in today’s world. Habitat encroachment, while definitely a very important factor, can only move as fast as the humans can and certain habitats are not suitable for human settlement. Fire is also a proxy for human presence and disturbance.
Fire never discriminates, it moves faster than humans and it destroys everything from soil bacteria to birds to denning mammals to trees and creepy crawlies. You will not find another threat to conservation that is as broad spectrum as fire. It can be likened to a broad spectrum anti-biotic: everything is targeted whether good, bad or neutral.
Using fire inappropriately is possibly one of the biggest problems Africa faces in terms of rangeland management, either too much or too little and boom! You’ve sufficiently skewed your ecosystem into habitat fragmentation and landscape-level change, not to mention reducing overall biodiversity by homogenising disturbance events.
The Southern African sub-region faces a huge problem of bush encroachment cause by the alteration of natural fire regimes, where certain tree or shrub species in a region are better adapted to cope with frequent fire events and eventually the treeline encroaches on grasslands and open plains. This is perfectly illustrated by the Acacia karroo invasion of the Smaaldeel grasslands in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Here, livestock farmers removed fire from the landscape because they thought it was a destructive influence. Aerial photographs and research by local universities has shown that they couldn’t have been more wrong. Many private game reserves in Limpopo Province also struggle with bush encroachment – a remnant of the commercial agricultural history of the land – but here Terminalia sericea is the usual suspect. Parts of Zambian protected areas exhibit classic bush encroachment in plains where, 30 years ago only the odd tree was seen on an anthill, now the horizon is littered with deformed, stunted Piliostigma, Combretum and Acacia trees that have taken over edaphic grasslands whose fire regime has been interfered with since the mid-1900’s. Authorities and tour operators like to blame the tree deformities on elephant damage but we all know Zambia does not have enough elephants for that to be true. Treelines advance, maintaining natural species composition, in areas where fire is completely excluded, producing the same effect as typical bush encroachment and reducing open grassy areas.
Conversely, receding treelines of woodlands and forests can be attributed to frequent fires that damage trees not well adapted to fire. This is why many Western settlers adopted no-burn policies, which have been absorbed by the independent African governments of today.
The reason fire is rarely managed properly stretches back to the good old settler/colonial times when the Western immigrants were of the opinion that indigenous use of fire was a destructive practice. While this may be true concerning preservation of ancient trees and forests, the anthropogenic use of fire led to the opening of Africa’s woodlands and forests to create the great savannahs. Without that progression, the great radiation of ungulates would not have been possible and Africa as we know it today would not exist.
If conservation is to indeed preserve biodiversity and habitats for all creatures great and small, then it needs to start understanding the role fire plays in African ecology. Reducing open grassy habitat will exclude wildlife species that select open areas, such as typical plains game, and reduce habitat availability for edge species; reducing woodland and forested habitat does the same for those species preferring cover. Balance is what is needed, and more monitoring, recording and publishing of fire and its landscaping abilities in relation to conservation goals and objectives.
In order to achieve such balance, however, an enormous shift in perceptions and understanding of fire is required by rangeland managers, academics, the agricultural sector, conservation NGO’s, governmental departments and the pyromaniac population of Africa. Given the blatant distrust between rangeland managers (often anti-academic because they get treated like ignorant school children regularly), academics (who are often the perpetrators of such discrimination and think they know best but rarely agree between themselves), conservation NGO’s (who tend to base their understanding of nature on memoirs by early Western settlers in the 1800’s and 1900’s) and the indigenous peoples (who are almost always treated as criminals and the source of destruction when it comes to conservation), this balance will likely not be reached any time soon.
In order to find this balance – to douse the literal and metaphoric flames engulfing conservation in Africa – we all have to get along and find a middle ground which is conservation of natural African landscapes. Not preservation of individual species or the idyllic “Myth of Wild Africa”.
Submitted to Africa Geographic April 2017