As winter deepens, rainfall eases off and the grass turns yellow and dry, conservation managers turn their attention to an integral element for the management of protected natural areas – fire. Controlled burns are an essential management tool for maintaining the optimal ecological functioning of fire-prone natural systems, allowing old, dead vegetation to burn off and new palatable grass to grow back in its place.
According to iSimangaliso’s Executive Manager Biodiversity and Conservation, Sizo Sibiya, “A burning regime is vital for stimulating grass regeneration, destruction of alien plants and in many examples of flora, the germination of seeds. It also creates better grazing for antelope and other herbivores as it stimulates grass growth, plant vigour and species diversity.”
This year, following good summer rains, the uMkhuze section of the World Heritage Site in particular is covered in a thick pelt of long golden grass – in ecological terms, a high fuel load that poses a risk in the case of runaway bush fires. For this reason, a burning programme will begin around mid-July and the end of the school holiday period. Already the uMkhuze section has begun to experience encroaching fires started either accidentally or deliberately in areas adjacent to the Park. Fortunately these have been controlled to prevent threats to infrastructure or wildlife.
In the coastal grasslands of iSimangaliso’s Eastern and Western Shores, as well as the Ozabeni and Coastal Forest sections, fire has been used by generations of land users to improve grazing. Without this, many areas of the park would be vulnerable to encroachment by woody plants leading to a loss of valuable coastal grasslands. Regular burning is therefore an important part of iSimangaliso and its conservation agent, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s management strategy to maintain ecosystem functioning and biodiversity and retain these habitats for grazing game species.
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