What controls woodland regeneration after elephants have killed the big trees?
Top-down regulation of ecosystems by large herbivores is a topic of active debate between scientists and managers, and a prime example is the interaction between elephants Loxodonta africana and trees in African savannas. A common assumption among wildlife managers is that a local reduction in elephant numbers will ultimately allow woodland to self-restore to a desired former state. Such regeneration is, however, dependent on the survival of seedlings of impacted tree species. We conducted a field experiment to investigate seedling predation in the elephant-transformed Chobe riparian woodland of northern Botswana. We planted seedling gardens in (i) complete exclosures that excluded all herbivores except small rodents and invertebrates, (ii) semi-permeable exclosures that excluded ungulates but included primates, lagomorphs, all rodents, gallinaceous birds, etc, and (iii) completely open plots. Seedlings were of two tree species decreasing in the area (Faidherbia albida and Garcinia livingstonei) and two that are increasing (Combretum mossambicense and Croton megalobotrys). After 9 months, seedling survival ranged from >75% for all species in the complete exclosure to <20% for Faidherbia albida in the open plots. Survival of all seedlings except C. megalobotrys declined precipitously in open plots during the dry season when invertebrates are largely dormant but when impalas Aepyceros melampus (locally abundant ungulates) increase the browse components of their diets. Seedling survival in the open plots was negatively related to local impala density but unrelated to that of any other browser. Synthesis and applications. Our findings relate to the current debate about managing elephants to restore southern African savanna landscapes to desired historical states. Various seedling predators, including the ubiquitous impala Aepyceros melampus, regulate the regeneration of trees from seedlings, and our experiments support the hypothesis that tall closed-canopy woodlands originate during episodic windows of opportunity for seedling survival. To artificially recreate such a window would require the decimation of seedling predators as well as elephants, which is impractical at the landscape scale.