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Keywords:

  • Australia;
  • feral animal impacts;
  • historical aerial photography;
  • landscape change;
  • megaherbivores;
  • multi-model inference;
  • tropical savanna dynamics;
  • woody plants

Abstract

Aim  To study changes in woody vegetation in both floodplains and eucalypt savanna over a 40-year period using multi-temporal spatial analysis of variation in density of a large introduced herbivore, the Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Feral buffalo built up to high densities in the study area until c. 1985, after which a control programme almost eliminated the animals. From 1990, low densities of managed buffalo were maintained inside an enclosure. We compared trends in woody vegetation when buffalo were high-density feral, low-density managed or absent.

Location  The study area was located in and around a 116-km2 buffalo enclosure inside Kakadu National Park, in monsoonal northern Australia.

Methods  We analysed sequences of digitized and geo-rectified aerial photographs, acquired in 1964, 1975, 1984, 1991 and 2004, to chart changes in woody cover on the floodplain and in the savanna. On the floodplain we assessed whether trees were present at these times at 14,568 points, and buffalo density was estimated from the density of animal tracks. In the savanna we estimated woody cover at pre-selected sites. Generalized linear modelling was used to analyse changes in woody vegetation, using elevation and presence of woody vegetation in neighbouring points on the floodplain, and buffalo regime and initial woody cover in the savanna.

Results  Changes in animal track density reflected park-wide historical estimates of buffalo numbers. Tree cover increased in both floodplain and savanna, but this was only weakly related to buffalo density. The best predictor of whether a floodplain cell converted from treeless to woody, or the converse, was the woodiness of neighbouring vegetation. There was slightly less thickening with high buffalo densities. In savanna, low densities of managed buffalo were weakly associated with increases in tree cover relative to either high densities of feral buffalo or no buffalo.

Main conclusions  Our study indicates that buffalo are not a major driver of floodplain and eucalypt savanna dynamics. Rather, the observed increase in woody cover in both savanna and flood plains concords with regional trends and may be related to increased atmospheric CO2, increasing rainfall and changing fire regimes during the study period.