Elephant-mediated habitat modifications and changes in herbivore species assemblages in Sabi Sand, South Africa

W.F. de Boer, J.W.A. van Oort, M. Grover, M.J.S. Peel

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12 Citations (Scopus)


Elephant Loxodonta africana conservation might indirectly influence the wider herbivore community structure, as elephants have the ability to significantly modify the savanna habitat. Uncertainty remains as to the consequences of these effects, as elephants might either compete with other species or facilitate foraging especially for grazers and smaller browsing species by increasing the amount of grass or the amount of browse at lower feeding heights. We studied these potential cascading effects of elephants by using 16 years of data (1992–2011) from the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, South Africa, which showed a steady increase in elephant densities from 0.12 to 2.03 elephants/km2 over this period. We demonstrate that tree densities, and browse availability at feeding heights below 2 m, decreased with increasing elephant densities, and that there was no positive effect of elephants on browse availability. The changes in elephant densities were good predictors (R 2 adj¿>¿0.50) in explaining population fluctuations of other herbivore species. The total body mass of grazers increased more than that of the browsers, shifting the community toward a grazer and megaherbivore-dominated community. An increasing density of elephants changes the composition of the herbivore community, as mesobrowsers are unable to benefit from the impact of elephants on trees, but megagrazers show strong positive responses. Hence, changes in elephant densities as a result of poaching or conservation may trigger cascading community effects. These are neglected but important consequences of (negative or positive) human impacts on elephant numbers, especially in restricted areas such as reserves and national parks.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)491-503
JournalEuropean Journal of Wildlife Research
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • kruger-national-park
  • colophospermum-mopane
  • savanna vegetation
  • woodland structure
  • woody vegetation
  • competition
  • population
  • season
  • management
  • dynamics

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