Surveys Completed, Fire Researchers Prepare To strike A Match

Split-Ear, the monarch of the road was seen having fun near Pretoriuskop.

By Lynn Trollope

SavFIRE – the Savanna Fire Ignition Research Experiment - is a collaborative experiment between Working on Fire, the Kruger National Park and the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and is being conducted in the Kruger National Park over five years. Fire is a natural component of the environment and influences ecosystems through fire behaviour. Fire behaviour encompasses types of fires and fire intensity.

Frequency of fires and the season of burn also have impacts on ecosystems. Since fire is a natural part of the ecosystem it is used for management purposes in the Kruger National Park to achieve specific objectives i.e. to get rid of old dead grass and provide fresh green grazing for animals, especially in the higher rainfall areas of Pretoriuskop where grass quality declines rapidly.

SavFIRE is designed to test the impact of perimeter block burns and point ignitions on habitat diversity. This is in line with one of the Kruger National Park's objectives, which is to create and/or preserve the maximum number of habitats in order to preserve the greatest biodiversity of plants, animals (both big and small), insects and reptiles etc.

SavFIRE will be conducted in three of the major landscapes in the Park the lowveld sour bushveld of the Pretoriuskop area, the knoppiesdoring-marula veld in the Satara area and the mopane veld in the northern section of the Park. It is hypothesised that point ignitions will promote biodiversity because of creating fire patterns within fire mosaics of burnt and unburnt vegetation, some of which will have been burnt by hotter fires than others, resulting in a wider range of habitats.

Currently this is an untested hypothesis and also point ignitions are difficult to control and could pose significant safety threats to infrastructure such as camps and also lodges in concession areas.

Professor Winston Trollope, a noted fire ecologist with extensive international experience, is of the opinion that under specific atmospheric (weather) conditions areas above a certain size, that are to be burnt for management purposes, can be burnt as perimeter block burns using fire breaks along the borders with a greater degree of safety and still achieve pyro-diversity (a range of fire mosaics resulting in different habitats).

This June phase one was started at Pretoriuskop where paired areas of 11increasing size were burnt simultaneously to ensure the same atmospheric conditions i.e. temperature, relative humidity and wind speed are prevailing for both perimeter and point ignitions. The extent of the fire mosaics resulting from the two types of ignition will be monitored and mapped using aerial photography and satellite images.

In order to monitor fuel loads and basal cover of the grass layer, which will provide baseline data to assist with the interpretation of the aerial photos and satellite images, teams of researchers have been conducting surveys of the grasses in all the blocks to be burnt.

Many kilometres of transects through the different blocks have been walked, measured and the different species of grasses identified. The survey teams are eternally grateful to the game guards who have so diligently protected them! It is very difficult to see rhino, lion, buffalo and even elephant when walking through thick bush or stands of thatching grass that is taller than many of the research team. It is even more difficult to check on one’s surroundings when you have your head down among the grass tufts measuring the distance to the nearest tuft in centimetres!

One also becomes an elegant tick taxi providing a gourmet meal to the hundreds of eager pepper ticks and the larger “bont-ticks”. So to those tourists travelling around the Pretoriuskop area in air-conditioned comfort who come across small bands of hot and thirsty researchers sitting in the welcome shade of a tree at the side of the road, please note, it is not flagrant disregard for Park rules.

Those are the vegetation survey teams from Working on Fire, the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal plus Kruger Park staff waiting for transport to the next survey on the next experimental block!



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