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Keywords:

  • grazing;
  • isotope;
  • nitrogen;
  • savanna;
  • South Africa

Abstract

The availability of nitrogen (N) is an important determinant of ecosystem and community dynamics for grasslands and savannas, influencing factors such as biomass productivity, plant and herbivore composition, and losses of N to waters and the atmosphere. To better understand the controls over N availability at landscape to regional scales, we quantified a range of plant and soil characteristics at each of 330 sites in three regions of South Africa: Kruger National Park (KNP), private game reserves adjacent to KNP (private protected areas – PPAs) and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP). In comparing regions and sites within regions, grazing appeared to have a strong influence on N availability. Sites in the PPAs adjacent to KNP as well as sodic and alluvial sites in general typically had the highest N availability. The high N availability of these sites was not generally associated with greater potential N mineralization, but instead with less grass biomass and more forb biomass that indicated greater grazing pressure. Whereas sodic sites had a long history of high N availability as evidenced by their high soil δ15N, the greater N availability in the PPAs over the two parks appeared to be relatively recent. Grazer biomass, average potential mineralization rates and grass biomass for HiP were greater than KNP, yet there were no differences in N availability as indexed by soil and foliar δ15N between sites in the two parks. Although the short-term increase in N availability in PPAs is not necessarily deleterious, it is uncertain whether current productivity levels in those ecosystems is sustainable. With differences in management causing herbivore biomass to be 150% greater in the PPAs than the adjacent KNP, changes in plant communities and nitrogen cycling might lead to long-term degradation of these ecosystems, their ability to sustain herbivore populations, and also serve as an economic resource for the region.