Further degradation of the Eastern Cape Subtropical Thicket (ECST) may be limited by alternative management strategies

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Desertification of Subtropical Thicket in the Eastern Cape, South Africa: Are There Alternatives?



  • 1 Terrestrial Ecology Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Port Elizabeth, PO Box 1600, 6000, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.


The Eastern Cape Subtropical Thicket (ECST) forms the transition between forest, semiarid karroid shrublands, and grassland in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Undegraded ECST forms an impenetrable, spiny thicket up to 3 m high consisting of a wealth of growth forms, including evergreen plants, succulent and deciduous shrubs, lianas, grasses, and geophytes. The thicket dynamics are not well understood, but elephants may have been important browsers and patch disturbance agents. These semiarid thickets have been subjected to intensive grazing by domestic ungulates, which have largely replaced indigenous herbivores over the last 2 centuries. Overgrazing has extensively degraded vegetation, resulting in the loss of phytomass and plant species and the replacement of perennials by annuals. Coupled with these changes are alterations of soil structure and secondary productivity. This rangeland degradation has largely been attributed to pastoralism with domestic herbivores. The impact of indigenous herbivores differs in scale, intensity, and nature from that of domestic ungulates. Further degradation of the ECST may be limited by alternative management strategies, including the use of wildlife for meat production and ecotourism. Producing meat from wildlife earns less income than from domestic herbivores but is ecologically sustainable. The financial benefits of game use can be improved by developing expertise, technology, and marketing. Ecotourism is not well developed in the Eastern Cape although the Addo Elephant National Park is a financial success and provides considerable employment benefits within an ecologically sustainable system. The density of black rhinoceros and elephant in these thickets is among the highest in Africa, with high population growth and the lowest poaching risk. The financial and ecological viability of ecotourism and the conservation status of these two species warrant expanding ecotourism in the Eastern Cape, thereby reducing the probability of further degradation of ECST.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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