African fires wipe out endangered rhino's favorite foods

October 24, 2018 by Cheryl Walker And Alicia Roberts, Wake Forest University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Fires in the African savannah – planned by national park staff to regenerate the preferred grasses of grazers such as wildebeests and zebras – are killing the few foods that endangered black rhinos love to eat.

And that makes the long-term future of even more uncertain, according to new research from T. Michael Anderson, a Wake Forest associate professor of biology who studies the black rhinos living in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. It's one of the last refuges for this critically endangered mammal.

Anderson's new research suggests that better protecting the places where rhinos find their food could be critical to ensuring their survival. "The burning question: does affect habitat selection and forage preference of the black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis in East African savannahs?" appears in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation.

This is the first study on how fire affects food sources of the black rhino, one of the most threatened large mammals on the planet. Fewer than 50 black rhinos survive in Serengeti, after decades of poaching have whittled away at their numbers.

Natural resource managers for the Serengeti use fire as a tool to increase nutrient-rich forage grasses for grazers; keep the bush from overtaking the savannah; and control ticks and diseases. But Anderson's survey of the post-burn landscape shows that such controlled burning doesn't help the woody plants preferred by browsers like the rhinos.

The rhinos' size limits what they eat: Their height means they can only pluck the leaves and fruits that grow below two meters on bushes and trees – which are almost always destroyed by the fires. And their range is relatively small; they can't travel distances like their fellow browsers, giraffes and elephants. Of the many hundreds of plant species that grow in Serengeti, black rhinos selectively prefer only about 10. One of their favorites, according to Anderson's study, is Achyranthes aspera, or chaff-flower.

After analyzing where Serengeti's rhinos visited and what they ate, Anderson determined that black rhinos preferred to graze in spots that haven't burned in at least 10 years. The park conducts controlled burns at least once a year.

Anderson has shared his research with the Serengeti's park warden and suggested a multi-pronged approach to black rhino conservation, including anti-poaching efforts and habitat management. For instance, some places in the ecosystem could be burned less frequently to create patches of woody vegetation for the to feed on.

"We need to acknowledge multiple management goals even if they aren't in line with each other," Anderson said. "Then we need to try to implement a management plan that provides a mosaic or patchwork of solutions."

Explore further: Two rhinos die in Chad after being relocated from S.Africa

More information: T. Michael Anderson et al. The burning question: does fire affect habitat selection and forage preference of the black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis in East African savannahs?, Oryx (2018). DOI: 10.1017/S0030605318000388

Related Stories

Six endangered S.African rhinos on way to Chad

May 3, 2018

Six critically endangered black rhinos were en route from South Africa to Chad on Thursday in a pioneering project to re-introduce the animals to a country where they were wiped out by poaching nearly 50 years ago.

10th endangered rhino dies in Kenya after botched transfer

July 26, 2018

A tenth critically endangered black rhino has died in Kenya after being moved to a new wildlife park and the sole survivor has been attacked by lions, wildlife authorities said Thursday in what some conservationists have ...

8 endangered black rhinos die in Kenya after relocation

July 13, 2018

Eight critically endangered black rhinos are dead in Kenya after wildlife workers moved them from the capital to a new national park, the government said Friday, calling the toll "unprecedented" in more than a decade of such ...

Black rhinos to come back home to Rwanda

May 2, 2017

Around 20 of Africa's endangered Eastern black rhinos are returning in an "extraordinary homecoming" to Rwanda after the species disappeared there 10 years ago, the African Parks organisation said Tuesday.

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.