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Elephant utilization of riparian tree species and the use of TPCs in Mapungubwe National Park

Diana K. Guzmán Colón1, Matthew Nielsen 2, Elizabeth T. Kane3, Taylor Gullet4
1Universidad de Puerto Rico en Bayamón, Industrial Minillas 170 Carr 174, Bayamón, PR, 00959, 2 Grinnell College, 1115 8th Ave., Grinnell, IA 50112-1670, 3 Rutgers University, 83 Somerset St, New Brunswick, NJ, 8901, 4Duke University, 2301 Erwin Road, Durham, NC 27705

Mean % circumference of the largest single patch of of bark stripped in 2008

Recently, Faidherbia albida, Ficus sycomorus, and Acacia xanthophloea in the gallery forest near the Limpopo river of Mapungubwe National Park are being heavily impacted by elephants. Because of the increased impact, MNP has established a “Tresholds for Potential Concern” (TPC) measurement for riparian tree species. Annual surveys of the trees are conducted to determine whether or not they are reaching a TPC level. These trees are impacted by elephants differently as well as respond differently to the detriment caused by elephant. Mainly elephant stripping and breakage are the causes of decreased health within these species populations. Similar to previous surveys F. albida has reached the upper limits of the TPC due to stripping, while the others seem to be sustaining a stable level of population health despite stripping. In addition to determining if the TPC is being reached by any of these species, the cause of death for these trees needs to be determined. Along with the impact of elephants other pressures exist and could be contributing to ultimate mortality of the trees. We found that the presence of borers greatly adds to the mortality of the trees once the bark has been stripped by elephants, and there is a direct association between borers and percent stripping.

Study Site







0 Faidherbia albida Ficus sycomorus Acacia xanthophloea

Park in Limpopo province, South Africa. The sites we surveyed were in the riparian vegetation along the Limpopo River. The sites were on the Limpopo near the northern and western border of Mapungubwe National Park to Botswana

Figure 3. Our study was conducted in the Mapungubwe National

Figure 6. Mean percent of bark circumference stripped. Significant difference between F. albida and A. xanthopholea (MannWhitney U-test, n=165, U=2512.00, P=0.011), but not between F. albida and F. sycomorus (Mann-Whitney U-test, n=132, U=1513.50, P=0.427) or F. sycomorus and A. xanthophloea (Mann-Whitney U-test, n=101, U=981.50, P=0.258).

Mean % bark stripped under 3 m


Experimental Design & Protocol This study incorporated TPC trees surveyed in 2007 by Aung et al. (2007). The individual trees were found using GPS coordinates and identified using the metal tags nailed into the trees that were labeled with unique identification numbers. The surveying took place from 11 to 13 November 2008.

The greatest proportion of all bark stripping below three meters, both old and new, occurred on F. albida (Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA, n=228, H(2)=32.376, P<0.001)
60 50 40 30 20 10 0 Faidherbia albida Ficus sycomorus Acacia xanthophloea 2008 2007 and earlier



Figure 7. Proportionately less bark was stripped under three meters from F. albida than the other two species (KruskalWallis ANOVA, n=228, H(2)=7.695, P=0.021). A. xanthophloea did not significantly differ in its proportion of bark stripping below three meters height from either F. albida (Mann-Whitney U-test, n=165, U=2834.50, P=0.124) or F. sycomorus (MannWhitney U-test, n=102, U=1013.00, P=0.310)

Figure 4. (a) The observations were recorded by three observers that divided the tree into thirds and assessed everything for their third. Any percentages that were recorded were then averaged to form the percentage for the total tree. (b) An area recently utilized by elephants (b)


Figure 1. Riverine forest systems have stressors which causes them to weaken and possibly succumb to death. (a) This picture shows the stripping done by an elephant. (b) Possible stressors: browsers and grazers, borers, fungi, lack of water, floods

For each tree we measured: 1.) Total percentage of bark circumference removed in the single, largest stripping event within the previous year (11/2007-11/2008). 2.) Percentage of the total area under three meters that had its bark stripped within the previous year 3.) Percentage of canopy that was no longer present. 4.)Presence or absence of resprouting. 5.) Presence or absence of holes caused by boring beetles. Emphasis was placed on recording the single largest percentage of bark circumference stripping to examine the impact of elephants on the trees’ phloem during the previous year as well as the fact that this observation is the basis of the TPC. The total area removed within the past year (11/2007 –11/2008) under three meters was recorded to see how large the cumulative, rather than a single event’s impact had been on these trees in the past years. Data Analysis Data analysis was performed using Statistica 6.1 (Statsoft 2004). The data from Aung et al.’s study in 2007 regarding total percentage of bark circumference removed, percentage of bark circumference removed in the past year (11/2006-11/2007), and percentage of the total area under three meters that had its bark stripped were included in our data analysis. Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA: Percent circumference of bark stripping done below three meters from 11/2007-11/2008 between the tree species (Mann-Whitney U-Tests to analyze the difference in stripping incidence between species) Canopy loss btween three species (Mann-Whitney U-Tests for the difference between them) Wilcoxon Paired Test To compare the circumference of the largest continuous patch of bark stripping found last year pre 2007 and this year 2007-2008 Mann-Whitney U-Tests To compare boring and percent stripping below three meters. Spearman Rank Correlation Test Analyze correlation between canopy loss and area stripped below three meters in the past year (11/2007-11/2008).

Most canopy loss observed was due to senescence and not direct removal by elephants. Canopy loss was different between the three species (Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA, n=154, H(2)=15.08, P=<0.001), but A. xanthophloea had the largest amount of canopy loss. We found a weak, but significant negative correlation between canopy loss and proportion of bark stripped under three meters, suggesting that bark stripping does not account for canopy loss in these trees (Spearman Rank Order Correlation, n=150, r=-0.180, P<0.05) Boring was associated with significantly greater total bark stripping below three meters (MannWhitney U-Test, n=113, U=1133.00, P=0.026)

•Elephants (Loxodonta africana) have been reintroduced Mapungubwe National Park after 100 years of exclusion, and have added an additional stress to the system, given that from 2005 to 2007 elephant population increased from 45 individuals to 219. •Elephant damage is more frequent than the damage caused by other stressors: Stripping of bark, complete toppling of trees, and the devouring of roots. •Stripping of bark consequently removes phloem, and increases the trees vulnerability to the weather, borers, and increased loss of water. •The canopy is becoming thinned. This change is capable of changing the species composition of the gallery forest system; canopy cover is also used as an indicator of forest degradation that arises from the shift from closed canopy to open canopy forest •Riverine forests are impacted more heavily because of their proximity to water

Proportion of trees with evidence of boring

0.45 0.4 0.35 0.3 0.25 0.2 0.15 0.1 0.05 0 0-25 26-50 51-75 76-100 Total % bark stripped below 3 m

Figure 8. Proportion of three canopy tree species (Faidherbia albida, Ficus sycamorus, and Acacia xanthophloea) with visible evidence of boring by the percentage of bark stripped below three meters height (n0-25=26, n26-50=23, n51-75=19, n76-100=23).

For the TPC for MNP gallery forest trees based on our current data, bark had been stripped from more than 50% of the circumference of 19.2% of F. albida, 1.6% of F. sycamorus, and no A. xanthophloea trees within the last year. Cumulatively, bark had been stripped from 50% of the circumference of 68.7% of F. albida, 44.3% of F. sycamorus, and 29.0% of A. xanthophloea. The rate at which trees crossed the canopy tree TPC over the last two years remained relatively constant in F. albida but declined notably in F. sycamorus and increased in A. xanthophloea

Figure 2. In the gallery forest at MNP, Faidherbia albida, Ficus sycomorus, and Acacia xanthophloea have been chosen as indicator species because they are heavily utilized by elephants.

The three chosen indicator species of the gallery forest all respond differently to elephant damage, and some can cope better than others. The degree to which the elephants affect trees depends largely on the structure of their bark. Although A. xanthophloea is protected from bark removal, it is still vulnerable to an increased elephant population since our observations show elephants regularly topple it. Recovery from toppling would be especially difficult for this species since we never observed it resprouting. Overall, each of the indicator species was impacted differently, with F. albida taking the most damage from bark stripping, whereas A. xanthophloea was toppled instead, and F. sycamorus experienced fairly little damage overall. There must be other detrimental factors present such as a lack of water that can sustain a canopy forest, recruitment ability of these trees decreases with reduced water availability, trampling, and heavy browsing by smaller herbivores, or flooding which flushes out nutrients valuable to tree growth. The TPC ignores the cumulative impacts of elephant stripping (e.g. tree’s circumference is 25% stripped each year it would be fully ring barked within four years). That is faster than the tree population could recover, yet the TPC will never be crossed. TPC also does not account for other ways elephants damage large trees, particularly toppling. It still has detected the heavy impacts of elephants on F. albida leading to the need for response to its effects.
Aknowledgements: We would like to thanks Mark Ketih for being our mentor and helping with statistics. Laurence K. for sharing his botany skills. Graeme E. for being our game guard. Other OTS students who volunteered to help out with this project. SANParks for letting us conduct this research at MNP

•Thresholds for Potential Concern (TPC) measures to take action when potential irreversible changes in system are detected. Taking into consideration several disturbances: herbivore damage and changes in the woody and herbaceous component of the system. •In MPN a TPC was established to monitor herbivore impacts on vegetation structure and composition by measuring bark stripping, caused mainly by elephants •We are evaluating the TPC established for elephant damage: 10% of trees of the indicator species are 50% ring-barked over any one year period, the TPC for that certain species is reached . •Questions: 1.) What are the differences in bark removal from these different tree species, 2.) What are the relationships between stripping of a tree’s bark by an elephant and the occurrence of borers, 3.) What are the responses of the plants to these impacts, and 4) Has the TPC been reached and at what rate. It needs to be determined whether the trees are dying mainly because of borers and elephants or some other possible factors, such as other local disturbances that may affect the functioning of the ecosystem.
Aung, W., J. Coffen, and J. Palmer. 2007. The impact of elephants on Faidherbia albida, Acacia xanthophloea, and Ficus sycomorus sp. and their status in relation to the Thresholds of Potential Concern set in Mapungubwe National Park. Organization for Tropical Studies report fall 2007. Mapungubwe, Limpopo Province, South Africa Botha, J., E. T. F. Witkowski, and C. M. Shackleton. 2002. A comparison of anthropogenic and elephant disturbance on Acacia xanthophloea (fever tree) populations in the Lowveld, South Africa. Koedoe 45(1): 9-18. Pettit, N. E., and R. J. Naiman. 2005. Flood-deposited wood debris and its contribution to heterogeneity and regeneration in a semi-arid riparian landscape. Oecologia 145: 434-444. Webb, S. 2005-2008. Population numbers: SANParks census totals. Mapungubwe, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Figure 5. Tagged trunk of one of the species (F. albida) surveyed at the Limpopo River. Original tag date: 2006. To the right, a baby elephant puling off branches from a bush near the river.

Literature cited

We reassessed bark stripping damage for 255 individuals tagged by Aung et al. (2007). Thirteen of the trees were excluded from analysis due to being dead or toppled by elephants. In total, we surveyed 105 Faidherbia albida, 62 Ficus sycomorus, and 78 Acacia xanthophloea trees. For the percent circumference of the single largest patch of bark stripping this year, there was a significant difference between the tree species (Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA, n=228, H(2)=8.271, P=0.016)