The impact of cattle ranching on large-scale vegetation patterns in a coastal savanna in Tanzania


P. J. Edwards, Geobotanical Institute ETH, Zurichbergstrasse 38, CH-8044 Zurich, Switzerland (fax +411 632 12 15; e-mail


  • 1The success of large-scale cattle ranching in African savanna vegetation has often been limited by problems of bush encroachment and disease (in particular trypanosomiasis spread by tsetse flies). Mkwaja Ranch, occupying an area of 462 km2 on the coast of Tanzania, is a recent example of a large ranching enterprise that failed within the savanna environment. It was closed in 2000 after 48 years of operation. In this paper we describe the main vegetation types of the area (excluding closed forest vegetation) and relate their patterns of distribution to the former use of the ranch for cattle.
  • 2The study area comprised the former ranch and parts of the adjacent Saadani Game Reserve, which had not been grazed by cattle for many years and had never been used for large-scale ranching. Following field surveys, 15 distinct types of grassland and bush vegetation were defined and a vegetation map was created using a Landsat TM satellite image. A multispectral classification using the maximum likelihood algorithm gave good results and enabled all 15 vegetation types to be distinguished on the map.
  • 3Two main spatial trends were detected in the vegetation. One was a large-scale decrease in the cover of bushland from the most intensively used parts of the ranch through more extensively used areas to the game reserve; this trend was attributed to differences in management history as well as to climatic and topographic factors. A second trend was a radial vegetation pattern associated with the enclosures where cattle were herded at night. High amounts of three bushland types [dominated by (i) Acacia zanzibarica, (ii) Dichrostachys cinerea, Acacia nilotica or Acacia mellifera and (iii) Terminalia spinosa] occurred in a zone between 300 and 2500 m from the paddocks, with a peak in bush density at about 900 m (mean value for 18 paddocks). In contrast, bushland dominated by Hyphaene compressa was scarce close to the paddocks and became more abundant with distance. There was also a radial trend in the grassland communities: close to the paddocks there was short grass vegetation containing many ruderals and invasive weedy species, while the tall grassland types with species such as Hyperthelia dissoluta and Cymbopogon caesius occurred further away in the areas less affected by cattle.
  • 4Synthesis and applications. The intensive modern livestock ranching as practised on Mkwaja Ranch proved to be unsustainable both economically and ecologically. In the end, the biggest problem faced by the ranch managers was not controlling disease, as had originally been feared, but preventing the spread of bush on pasture land. The results of our study demonstrate just how severe the problem of bush encroachment was, especially in areas close to paddocks. An important lesson for management is that grazing patterns need to be taken into consideration when determining the sustainable stocking rate for an area. To reduce the risk of bush encroachment in grazing systems with focal points such as paddocks or watering points, stocking rates need to be lower than in systems with a more uniform grazing distribution.