Modeling elephant-mediated cascading effects of water point closure

J.P. Hilbers*, F. van Langevelde, H.H.T. Prins, C.C. Grant, M. Peel, M.B. Coughenour, H.J. de Knegt, R. Slotow, I. Smit, G.A. Kiker, W.F. de Boer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Wildlife management to reduce the impact of wildlife on their habitat can be done in several ways, among which removing animals (by either culling or translocation) is most often used. There are however alternative ways to control wildlife densities, such as opening or closing water points. The effects of these alternatives are poorly studied. In this paper, we focus on manipulating large herbivores through the closure of water points (WPs). Removal of artificial WPs has been suggested to change the distribution of African elephants, which occur in high densities in national parks in Southern Africa and are thought to have a destructive effect on the vegetation. Here, we modeled the long-term effects of different scenarios of WP closure on the spatial distribution of elephants, and consequential effects on the vegetation and other herbivores in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Using a dynamic ecosystem model, SAVANNA, scenarios were evaluated that varied in (1) availability of artificial WPs, (2) levels of natural water, and (3) elephant densities. Our modeling results showed that elephants can indirectly negatively affect the distributions of mesomixed feeders, mesobrowsers and some mesograzers under wet conditions. The closure of artificial WPs hardly had any effect during these natural wet conditions. Only under dry conditions the spatial distribution of both elephant bulls and cows changed when the availability of artificial water was severely reduced in the model. These changes in spatial distribution triggered changes in the spatial availability of woody biomass over the simulation period of 80 years and this led to changes in the rest of the herbivore community, resulting in increased densities of all herbivores, except for giraffe and steenbok, in areas close to rivers. The spatial distributions of elephant bulls and cows showed to be less affected by the closure of WPs than most of the other herbivore species. Our study contributes to ecologically informed decisions in wildlife management. The results from this modeling exercise imply that long-term effects of this intervention strategy should always be investigated at an ecosystem scale.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)402-415
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • kruger-national-park
  • african savanna
  • south-africa
  • distribution patterns
  • wildlife management
  • sexual segregation
  • large herbivores
  • habitat use
  • landscape
  • systems


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