Elephant both Increase and Decrease Availability of Browse Resources for Black Rhinoceros

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Abstract

Despite the apparent dual role of elephant Loxodonta africana in shaping the food niches of large herbivores, empirical studies focus on their role in facilitating foraging opportunities, while declining resource opportunities (a necessary requirement for competition) are rarely quantified. Our study investigates the relative importance of elephant in these processes by quantifying potential browsing opportunities (using total and preferred biomass, between-bite distances and bite mass) for black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis along a gradient of elephant utilization in the succulent thickets of the Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa. We show that browse biomass and potential between-bite harvest rates initially increase with the intensity of elephant utilization through the formation and spread of elephant pathways in otherwise impenetrable thicket. At the maximum, modeled estimates of total and preferred biomass are on average 223 percent and 254 percent higher, respectively, than that recorded in the absence of elephant (Exclosures); potential between-bite harvest rates are 75 percent higher. With continued elephant utilization, however, browse biomass declines and between-bite distances increase as the pathways expand and coalesce and canopy height declines. Our model of the change in potential browsing opportunities for rhinoceros reflects the accumulated effects of elephant over time, i.e., the effects accumulate until the relationship switches from increased to reduced availability. With this we demonstrate the key role of elephant for rhinoceros foraging, linked to a potential loss of this role at higher levels of utilization.

Ancillary