email alerts

To receive email alerts for new posts of this blog, enter your address below.

Follow by Email

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Prairie and Veldt: what tallgrass illinois might learn from tallgrass africa

Some of us Somme stewards spent three weeks among rhinos and lions trying to get a feel for what "grassland with megafauna" can teach us about what we’re trying to restore at home.

It’s complicated and different. We know that. But the prairies and savannas we’re working to rediscover had American bison and wolves – and not many millennia back our ecosystem evolved with mammoths and other counterparts of lions, rhinos, cheetahs, and zebras of the Kruger megafauna. (For a good summary of ancient tallgrass history, see Tim Flannery’s “The Eternal Frontier.”)

We were stuck by the massive and ever-present impacts of big animals. Illinois preserves in contrast seem like botanic gardens under glass. Much of the Kruger wilderness (especially where recently burned) smells like a stable or a cowbarn. It’s not at all a bad smell, outside. But you sure know you’re around wild “livestock.” The smell of nature mixes animals, decay, flowers, and clean clear air. It’s a gloriously powerful smell.

Tracks, animal trails, wallows, dung middens, fire scars and animal scars are everywhere, everywhere. We always walked on trails that looked like the Somme trails. But in this case, big animals made them – footpaths, hoofpaths, paw-paths. Every tree has “character” carved on it by fire, teeth, claws, tusks and rubbing.

The Kruger climate is not tropical. It’s more like Georgia (in Kruger's cooler, wetter south) or Texas (in the park's drier, hotter north). The preserve extends a whopping 200 miles, north to south, and is 60 miles wide where we were, in the tallgrass cooler south.

Shrubs and trees are everywhere - in a grass matrix. When you look close, 
every woody plant is burned, eaten, or trampled. If you want to zoom in, notice shrub skeletons 
(and zebra with various antelopes foraging in the middle distance to the right). 

Walking on this hallowed ground is dangerous and forbidden unless led by rangers with guns. 
The rangers are incredibly knowledgeable and aware (of tracks, smells, and the meaning of obscure sounds). A person with ranger abilities can walk safely in this nature, unarmed. 

Many of the rangers are clearly the native people of this land and have been for countless generations. Philamon (pointing) knew every grass, and how much various animals liked to eat it. 
He knew native uses for seeds, flowers, stems, and bark. He could identify without binoculars 
every bird that we could see by using them. We stewards seek to become his counterpart in the prairies and woodland of North America. But we have a way to go.
In the foreground is a dung midden left by a male white rhino. 
Rangers know graduate-degree levels of detail about the ecology of dung middens.  

A conventional arborist might shudder. The stump here has likely burned 
and re-sprouted countless times. The dark-barked tree to the right has had its top eaten off repeatedly. These trees are nature. They are beautiful. Real nature requires an adjusted aesthetic. 

So too is the ground torn up by wallows. Buffalo, rhinos, elephants, and many others frequent 
and make them. As in Illinois, many species of plants seem adapted to the edges of wallows 
or burned-off shrubs. Disturbance diversity promotes plant diversity. 

These elephants are standing in a wallow and throwing dirt on their backs. 
(If you want to zoom in you can see a cloud of clods released by the trunk of the cow on the left.) They butt trees down. They dig, wallow, trample, eat, and generally delight
in throwing their weight around. Masters of Disturbance. 

This is wilderness. But our words "pristine," "unspoiled," and "untouched" seem not quite right. Much of our common "natural areas thinking" doesn't quite fit here. 
Does that suggest we may need better words for our own work?

Rangers also teach appreciation of trees, grasses, hydrologies, and spiders.
When we put this baboon spider back, the ranger carefully camouflaged the opened burrow
to protect this treasure from parasitic wasps.

The shrubs here have been burned and are re-sprouting. The grass is lush. Buffalo are said to be the most dangerous of "the big five" if you hunt or otherwise antagonize them. But if you're cool, they can be friendly, curious, and kind of regular. Some guides let us get very close to them.
The park folks think a lot about the visitor experience. Visitor support
is what keeps the park funded and safe from inappropriate development.

Zebras, like buffalo, eat grass. Giraffes, like white-tailed deer, eat bark and leaves. 
Large areas of the park have few trees higher than giraffes, as they continually browse the tops, maintaining a kind of fifteen-foot-high "woody lawn."

When walking through tall grass we often came across areas where the vegetation was very short. Some rangers explained that these were areas where the grass was very nutritious, so the grazers kept them eaten down. But I could rarely detect so much as a nibbled blade. A later ranger explained that these were "sodic sites" - with high sodium because hydrology brought mineral-laden water to the surface here, and most plants couldn't grow in the mineral soil. He also said that those that did slowly grow here had high mineral content that some animals sought out. Many animals also liked to loaf in these areas, perhaps because of the breeze and the safety of good visibility? 
In this case, we watched four young cheetah siblings from a car. Big cats, rhinos, and elephants don't seem to abide us walking close to them. But they don't much mind people in vehicles. 
Cars, as "blinds," are an important part of experiencing the park. 

Our photos of people out walking are mostly of people's backs. No one was allowed to dart out front to take a picture. Guides kept us close together, safe, and silent.

When the group stopped 
to look at tracks, or a flower, 
or bug, or whatever, 
one ranger typically went off 
by himself to listen, 
smell, and learn. 

Rangers heard subtle 
sounds that might reveal 
what was invisible in a thicket - from the rumble 
of an elephant's stomach 
to the call of one bird 
that might mean rhinos 
or other birds 
that might indicate 
a large predator

A person cannot learn most 
such skills in a classroom 
or from books.
You come to know 
key parts of nature 
by learning in nature.   

We continue to think about Kruger.
Any thoughts, questions, or insights you might have would be much appreciated.

Photos by Jeanne Dunning, Linda Masters, and Stephen Packard


  1. I have been thinking about how bison might have impacted our local ecosystems after I watched the Nature special "Cold Warriors" on PBS. Currently, plains bison avoid wooded areas when maintained in preserves without wolves. However, the wood bison in the video were using woodlands to hide from and evade wolves. Have you ever seen a 2000+ lb bison run into a tree at full gallop and get knocked on its butt? Check out 9 min 24 seconds into the video. Just look at the spacing in the woody species, as if they were spread just far enough apart to make bison escape routes. I am sure these escape routes also give a pathway for fire to invade allowing succession to reverse. This is something restoration practitioners have to do manually by cutting. I wonder what would have been different when wolves were chasing bison around our local preserves. Maybe the bison busted up woody encroachment enough for fire to knock the woody species back. If this phenomenon could be recreated in the present time a shift in the dynamic might occur eliminating the need for manually intensive brush cutting.


    1. James, good comments. When the bison are restored to Nachusa (fairly soon?), we'll have a great opportunity to learn how this part of the ancient ecosystem impacts the rest. Wolves, big cats, and bears, though, just don't seem to be in the prairie's foreseeable future. Too bad. But we have a thrilling amount of nature coming back already - in just our first few decades of ecosystem restoration and conservation. A lot to work with.

  2. Large carnivores may not be “in the prairies’ foreseeable future.” However, they are definitely something Illinois will need to consider going forward.

  3. Thank you, Stephen, for sharing your observations and insights. I found two quotations especially tantalizing: "Real nature requires an adjusted aesthetic" and " You come to know key parts of nature by learning in nature." Keep 'em coming...

  4. Steve, reading this post and looking at the photos several of the observations and speculations you made about savanna in Illinois way back in 1988 came clicking one after another into my mind - the importance of fire in the savanna dynamic, the savanna may have been a naturally unstable ecosystem, the savanna needed some disturbance to maintain itself. Here we see those concepts in a functioning ecosystem. Nature is a wonderful thing.

    1. "Unstable" to me comes across as a bit prejudicial - as with those who used to claim that the savanna wasn't a distinct community. I often refer to savannas as especially "dynamic." Disturbances and much higher biodiversity (especially in terms of conservative species richness per hectare) are probably dependent on that dynamism. Many early observers wrote about how rapidly the savannas vanished when the fires were suppressed.

  5. Hmmmm, are we guilty cleaning up" our little part of the world? Eliminating buckthorn is a no-brainer (along with many other invasives), but what else do we do that might not be in the long-term best interest? Clearing around downed logs so they don't burn? Mowing edges? A lot of fun food for thought. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  6. "Disturbance diversity promotes plant diversity."

    Very interesting concept. Although, in NE Illinois, with the postage-stamp size of many of our preserves, how much disturbance can be tolerated while maintaining overall ecosystem health and preventing invasive species colonization?

    1. Good questions. Another question is, "How much lack of disturbance will these communities tolerate?" Many people report species being lost from lack of disturbance. In decades past, fire was written of as a negative disturbance. Now it's widely seen as a positive one. Growing numbers of researchers are also demonstrating that other kinds of disturbance (including grazing and trampling) can be positive and necessary for many species.

  7. Our management activities can also be viewed as disturbance. The challenge is that while disturbance once resulted in either colonization by common native weeds which were eventually outcompeted, or by plants with specialized adaptation to disturbed areas, we now have to worry about aggressive invaders. It is a little disheartening to see after a good prairie burn all of the little top-killed buckthorn resprouts, which we may never eliminate in my lifetime. But the fires control them and promote the increasing diversity of the ecosystem. That leaves us the time to go after sweet clover, reed canary, and other localized threats without constantly sawing brush just to maintain the prairie. In the woods pulling GM and stickseed is clearly a disturbance. In the end it has to do more good than harm.

    1. For areas being burned annually (as some people recommend for some areas) the buckthorn and other re-sprouts may be a trivial problem (and indeed may die out in time??). But for areas with longer gaps between burns (which are definitely to be recommended for some areas), the solution recommended by Tom Vanderpoel may be best: that is, we go out with foliar sprayers and spray out the little buckthorn re-sprouts when they get six inches tall - in spring after a fire. This can eliminate them with very modest impact on the rest of the ecosystem. It's a lot of work - but may be worth it in some cases.

  8. In Kenya, I learned that the migrating Wildebeests leave behind tons of, what all the guides refer to as "poo", fertilizer for the growing grasses. They knew the detail regarding which minerals in the grasses help support the pregnant animals, whether it was the result of the excrement fertilizer, or from the termites bringing nutrients to the soil surface from their massive excavations. There was an appreciation and understanding of the factors affecting the ecosystem on both the large and small scale. On the Conservancies, the Masai rotate their herds of cattle to provide the grasses with nutrients and to not overgraze any one area. You could see the difference between the areas that had been carefully managed by the villagers and those that had not been grazed in the National Park. The subject of "poo" worked in to many of the conversations about the environment with handfuls enthusiastically scooped up by the guides to highlight a specific point on the digested contents or an insect living in the organics. We don't see the abundance of decomposing "poo" here like you do on the African plains.

    1. Yes, guides did indeed scoop up handfuls of elephant or rhino "poo" to show this and that. They treated it as basically as clean as dirt, and probably it is. We need to get over some of out "over-civilized" (read: ignorantly superstitious) prejudices.

      Sue, I wonder if you could give a bit more detail on the differences between Masai pastures and the ("wilder"?) park grasslands?

  9. "Adjusted aesthetic" is the perfect description. It's fascinating to travel to different prairie regions and see grassland through the eyes of local ecologists. Management and restoration strategies are strongly driven by the local aesthetic. That's not necessarily bad unless those aesthetic-driven strategies are limiting the potential diversity/resilience of those grasslands. There are lots of ways to do good things for grasslands, but not all ways are equally good. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks for the good thoughts. I agree. It's interesting that eastern ecologists mostly seem like they'd rather not think about grazing animals. Ecologists in Nebraska and the Dakotas seem to be like the South Africans in some ways. Nebraska thinks about bison. Africans think about Cape buffalo, rhinos, and elephants.