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Wildfires in Africa promote biodiversity, but we still have to learn to use them

Posted February 20, 2018

Wildfires are horrible and we typically try to control them. However, we mostly interfere because humans cause these fires and human property is in the way – natural wild fires are actually good for the environment. Scientists from the University of York say that fires generate the maximum diversity of birds and mammals in savannahs in Africa, but only if they are carefully managed.

Rufous-tailed Weaver, quite a rare bird, benefits from wildfires in savannahs – it finds itself a niche to live close to more common species. Image credit: Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 2.0)

This continent-wide study revealed that wild fires in African savannahs increase biodiversity by 20 % in mammals and by 30 % in birds in places rich in rain. Scientists are so happy with these results that they are now looking into advising conservation specialist about how to use fire as a method to enhance biodiversity. But how such an unforgiving thing as fire can lead to biodiversity? Wild fires are not homogenous. There are many types of fire that do not affect all animals equally. Fire is also not bad – lightning has caused wild fires in Africa for millions of years and ecosystems evolved around them.

Now man-made fires are used to manage the situation in African savannahs. Fire helps clearing out old dried up grass to improve feed for the cattle, regulating tick and wild bee populations, observing wildlife easier and so on. Scientists used data about fires collected using satellites and compared it with information about biodiversity in these areas. Over a 15 year period places with high rainfall and more types of fire developed richer biodiversity of mammals and birds. Why is that? Scientists think that the broader range of fires and rainfall creates a more diverse ecosystem – there is a variety of different conditions in the same place. Fires alter the availability of nutrients, terrain, shelter and predators, allowing animals to find a niche for survival.

This study shows that fire is not just a blunt tool. It requires a meticulous planning and understanding when, where and how savannahs should be set on fire. Dr Colin Beale, lead author of the study, said: “Pyrodiversity is particularly important for biodiversity in wet savannah landscapes, but this isn’t the only reason people light fires: different goals require different burning patterns. We want to develop tools to help the managers of conservation areas articulate what they want to achieve and help them to use fire to do it.”

People should not view wildfires as something inherently bad. They are natural and the nature needs them. However, since humans now are taking care of the nature we need better tools to decide when and how human-made fires should be started.


Source: University of York

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