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Dr. Elizabeth Le Roux

Cattle Corridors – Aligning ecological processes and local livelihoods

African protected areas are becoming increasingly isolated. This fragmentation threatens long-term ecological resilience and risks local species extinction. To counter this, strategies often involve human-mediated animal translocations between different protected areas to try and boost genetic variability. This will empower species to adapt more effectively to changing environmental conditions. However, this is a costly exercise, and only really feasible for a select few species. Additionally, future climate change will require species to track changing environments, and yet, fragmentation will impede this process. Thus, the isolation of protected areas greatly jeopardizes their future and that of the species that inhabit them.


However, in many regions of Africa, semi-natural rangelands exist between protected areas, offering the potential of establishing natural connectivity. If managed properly, healthy rangelands could serve as stepping-stone habitat for dispersal of species. Cattle themselves may also act as a conduit of transport in organisms and nutrients.


Unfortunately, there is immense strain on African rangelands, and this threatens their sustainability. Changes in governance and social structures lead to the breakdown in traditional views of the land as a communal resource. Restrictions on movement and increased competition with tourism and a growing human population push pastoralist societies to try to intensify and diversify their income-generating activities, often to the detriment of the environment. Thus, the capacity of rangelands to provide this sorely needed ecological connectivity is rapidly eroding.


Many pastoralist communities possess a strong desire to discover a sustainable path forward that will both preserve their way of life and protect the environment. This is evidenced by the many pastoralist communities that are trying to navigate these challenges through diversification of herding practices. However, there is much contention about which practices lead to ecologically healthy rangelands.


In this JWO-funded project we are quantifying the connectivity achieved through different rangeland management strategies. The 3-year project is driven by two PhD students and an MSc student, supported by a diverse group of researchers from multiple African countries and multiple disciplines. Together we explore three complementary sub-topics: the creation of physical structure that facilitates the dispersal of wildlife species, the maintenance of nutrient landscapes that facilitate plant dispersal, and the preservation of connectivity in gene flow that facilitates genetic diversity. To do this, we are leveraging a variety of techniques, such as satellite remote sensing, drone-based measurements of vegetation structure, various wildlife abundance surveys, micro-climate measurements, greenhouse experiments, and nutrient mapping.


With this project we hope to contribute towards several overarching and complimentary discussion points, namely: What are the characteristics of cattle corridors that promote connectivity? Is there a sweet spot where the mix of wildlife and livestock is compatible with biological diversity, ecological resilience and pastoralist community support? And, to what extent can ecologically functioning rangelands contribute towards making wildlife species better able to adapt to future global pressures such as climate change?