Savannas are the major biome of tropical regions, spanning 30% of the Earth's land surface. Tree : grass ratios of savannas are inherently unstable and can be shifted easily by changes in fire, grazing, or climate. We synthesize the history and ecological impacts of the rapid expansion and eradication of an exotic large herbivore, the Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalus), on the mesic savannas of Kakadu National Park (KNP), a World Heritage Park located within the Alligator Rivers Region (ARR) of monsoonal north Australia. The study inverts the experience of the Serengeti savannas where grazing herds rapidly declined due to a rinderpest epidemic and then recovered upon disease control.
Buffalo entered the ARR by the 1880s, but densities were low until the late 1950s when populations rapidly grew to carrying capacity within a decade. In the 1980s, numbers declined precipitously due to an eradication program. We show evidence that the rapid population expansion and sudden removal of this exotic herbivore created two ecological cascades by altering ground cover abundance and composition, which in turn affected competitive regimes and fuel loads with possible further, long-term effects due to changes in fire regimes. Overall, ecological impacts varied across a north–south gradient in KNP that corresponded to the interacting factors of precipitation, landform, and vegetation type but was also contingent upon the history of buffalo harvest. Floodplains showed the greatest degree of impact during the period of rapid buffalo expansion, but after buffalo removal, they largely reverted to their prior state. Conversely, the woodlands experienced less visible impact during the first cascade. However, in areas of low buffalo harvest and severe impact, there was little recruitment of juvenile trees into the canopy due to the indirect effects of grazing and high frequency of prescribed fires once buffalo were removed. Rain forests were clearly heavily impacted during the first cascade, but the long term consequences of buffalo increase and removal remain unclear. Due to hysteresis effects, the simple removal of an exotic herbivore was not sufficient to return savanna systems to their previous state.