Equivalence of grasslands in an ecological network and a World Heritage Site
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Ecological networks (ENs) of indigenous vegetation among commercial forestry plantations have been implemented to offset the negative effects of the alien plantation trees on local biodiversity. However, it is not known whether these ENs are equivalent to protected areas (PAs) in terms of their grassland biodiversity. To address this knowledge gap, we investigated how well grassland plant species richness and composition in an EN corresponds to similar habitats in an adjacent PA. This took place in grasslands on the east coast of South Africa, and was done at four paired sites using ten replicates at each of the eight sites. Pairwise comparisons (EN vs. PA) of plant species composition yielded statistically smaller differences than comparisons between different pairs of sites within either the EN or PA, illustrating considerable turnover of species whether or not they were in an EN or PA. Overall, there were fewer plant species in the EN for three of the four pairs of sites. Nevertheless, plant species composition was similar in each pair of sites. The grassland EN was also characterized by greater maximum vegetation height and less green vegetation cover. When differences between the EN and a PA were viewed against the natural variation of abiotic and biotic conditions across the landscape, they were small. We conclude that ENs of natural habitat contribute substantially to biodiversity conservation in transformed, commercially-productive landscapes, are almost as good as PAs for maintaining grassland plant diversity.
KeywordsBiodiversity conservation Afforested landscape matrix Grasses Habitat fragmentation World Heritage Site Plant diversity
We thank L Ezzy for field assistance, and C Burchmore, G Kruger, M Kruger and L Shaw for providing maps, accommodation at study sites, technical assistance and local knowledge. We also thank Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, Mondi South Africa and SiyaQhubeka Plantations for allowing sampling on their respective properties. The Mondi Ecological Network Programme (MENP) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa funded the research.
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