Woody plants on the march: trees and shrubs are encroaching across Africa.

Disclosure statement

Zander Venter receives funding from GreenMatter, the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, Red Meat Producers Organization and Cape Wools SA.


University of Cape Town provides funding as a partner of The Conversation AFRICA.

The Conversation is funded by the National Research Foundation, eight universities, including the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University and the Universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pretoria, and South Africa. It is hosted by the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Western Cape, the African Population and Health Research Centre and the Nigerian Academy of Science. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a Strategic Partner. more

Republish this articleRepublish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licenceAugust 13, 2018 2.45pm SAST

Forests are being cleared by humans at an alarming rate. Since 2000, roughly 20% of Africa’s forests have been wiped out. This deforestation has serious consequences, among them a loss of biodiversity and the potential to remove carbon dioxide (CO?), a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.

But trees and shrubs, collectively known as woody plants, appear to be fighting back on another front. Many of these species are gradually encroaching into grasslands and savannas across Africa, particularly in places like Cameroon and the Central African Republic.

Taken at face value, this may seem to be good news. Woody plants mean more fuel wood for rural communities and increased food for browsing livestock like goats. It may offset the loss in carbon sequestration caused by deforestation.

But more woody plants also means less habitat for grass and other herbs that make grasslands and savannas such productive systems. And that’s a direct threat to the productivity of cattle and certain wild herbivores which rely on grass for sustenance. This is significant because in 2016, Africa produced 6.3 million tonnes of beef – more than double the meat production from sheep and goats combined. Woody plants can also take up precious water resources.

Until recently, scientists relied on historical photographs from land and aeroplanes to investigate changes in vegetation cover over decades and even centuries. This only gives information at a few locations, but these valuable studies have consistently shown that woody plants are expanding their range over parts of Africa.

We set out to expand on this research by exploring change in woody plant cover outside of forests for the entire sub-Saharan Africa region using satellite imagery going back to 1986.

We found that woody plants’ cover has increased in large swathes of the continent in the past three decades. Our findings also suggest why this may have happened: because wildfires have decreased and there are more grazing animals rather than those that just browse. This combination, along with increases in rainfall, temperature and CO? emissions, has driven the march of woody plants in the region.

On the march

How woody plant cover in the Jumbla Range in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province has changed. Images courtesy of [rePhotoSA](http://rephotosa.adu.org.za/index.php). John Acocks (1945) and Zander Venter (2018).

In our research, published in Nature Communications, we found that over the past three decades the cover of woody plants increased in more than half (55%) of all non-forested areas.

Much less of the land (16%) actually lost tree and shrub cover, leaving only 29% relatively unchanged. Some of the countries experiencing the greatest increases in woody plant cover were Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Others, like Congo and Madagascar, underwent a net loss of woody plants.

The cause of tree cover loss is generally well understood: it’s dominated by human-induced clearing for agriculture, timber and fuelwood. But it’s less simple to understand what’s caused the gradual increase in woody plant cover we and others have recorded. The answer may lie with atmospheric CO?.

Atmospheric CO?, a by-product of burning fossil fuels but also a key ingredient for plant photosynthesis, has been on the rise since the industrial revolution around 1800. Scientists have suggested that this is causing the increase in woody plants because some experiments have shown that trees benefit more from elevated CO? than grasses do.

African experiments with elevated CO? have been conducted in greenhouses and plant growth chambers, where factors that limit plant growth in grasslands (like herbivores, fires, limited soil nutrients and water) are absent. And early botanical records, which aren’t online, report that “thornveld” (woody savannas) expanded during the early 1900s, when CO? levels were still relatively low. This highlights the complexity of natural systems and the dangers of attributing change to any one factor.

In our study we found that fire and herbivores are possibly as important as climate or CO? emissions in shaping Africa’s savannas. Over the past few decades, as human populations have grown, we have reduced the spread and intensity of fires and replaced browsing animals like elephants, kudu and goats with grazers like cattle. This has allowed woody plants to proliferate.

What can be done
Managers and conservationists who wish to mitigate woody plant encroachment can consider diversifying their livestock or wildlife.

Although reintroducing elephants and their ilk might be beyond the bounds of practicality for most livestock farmers, some goats or wild browsers like kudu will go a long way to helping. Some African countries have always had a market for goats and other countries have recently opened up those markets and so now would be a good time to farm with goats.

Targeted and prescribed burning practices could also help keep woody plants under control.

Technology can also be enormously helpful. Since 2017, hundreds of earth observation satellites, including the toaster-sized ones launched by satellite company Planet, have given us the ability to monitor every point on the planet every day. This could be harnessed to monitor how woody plant cover responds to management interventions, to see what works or doesn’t, and where. This information should be made readily available to scientists, governments and land managers to inform future interventions.