White rhinoceros may be extinct in twenty years with the current poaching rates. The loss of this megaherbivore is in itself a tragedy, but it may also have tremendous effects on the ecosystems they now live in.
The white rhino (Ceratotherium simum), and other megaherbivores, are key drivers of ecosystem functioning because they´re not controlled by predation.
A new study by Joris Cromsigt and Mariska te Beest, published in Journal of Ecology, highlights the role of the white rhino in the savannah ecosystems.
Earlier empirical studies on the ecosystem impact of megaherbivores are strongly biased to African elephant with very little contemporary evidence for other megaherbivore species. Cromsigt and te Beest quantifies how rhino recolonized Kruger National Park (KNP) following their re-introduction in the 1960s to create a unique 'recolonization experiment' and tests how this megagrazer is affecting the structure of savannah grasslands.
The researchers identified landscapes that rhino recolonized long time ago versus landscapes that were recolonized more recently. The assumption was that time since colonization represents a proxy for extent of rhino impact. Grassland heterogeneity on 40 transects covering a total of 30 kilometer were recorded. Short grass cover was clearly higher in the high rhino impact than low rhino impact landscape. Moreover, they encountered about 20 times more grazing lawns, a specific grassland community, in the high rhino impact landscape. The conclusion is that white rhinoceros may have started to change the structure and composition of KNP's savannah grasslands. The amount of short grass has important consequences for other species, but also components of ecosystem functioning such as fire regimes. The results highlight that this poaching crisis not only affects the species but threatens the potentially key role of this megaherbivore as a driver of savannah functioning.
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