Fire - A Key Factor in the Ecology and Management of African Grasslands and Savannas

W. S. W. Trollope and L. A. Trollope
Department Livestock and Pasture Science, Isebe Lemfuyo Namadlelo, University Fort Hare,
Private Bag x1314, Alice, 5700 South Africa Email:,

Fire is regarded as a natural ecological factor of the environment in Africa that has been occurring since time immemorial in the savanna and grassland areas of the continent. The capacity of Africa to support fire stems from the fact that it is highly prone to lightning storms and has an ideal fire climate comprising dry and wet periods. It also has the most extensive area of tropical savanna in the worldwhich is characterised by a grassy understorey that becomes extremely inflammable during the dry season. The use of fire in the management of vegetation for both domestic livestock systems and in wildlife management is widely recognised. Research on the effects of fire has been conducted throughout the grassland and savanna areas of Africa since the early period of the twentieth century and focused on the effects of season and frequency of burning on the forage production potential of the grass sward and the ratio of bush to grass in African savannas. However, in 1971 a conference was convened in the United States of America by the Tall Timbers Research Station at Tallahassee in Florida on the theme of "Fire in Africa.” This congress was attended by fire ecologists from throughout Africa and the major benefit that accrued from attending this meeting was the realization that in Africa the study of fire behaviour and its effects on the ecosystem, as described by type and intensity of fire, had been largely ignored in all the fire research that had been conducted up until that time. This led to the further recognition that the effects of fire must include the effects of all the components of the fire regime on the ecosystem viz., the type and intensity of fire and the season and frequency of burning. As a consequence a research program was initiated in South Africa in 1972 and later extended to East Africa in 1992, to characterise the behaviour of fires burning in savanna and grassland vegetation and determine the effect of type and intensity of fire on the vegetation. This research program has successfully developed a greater understanding into the effects of type and intensity of fire in African grasslands and savannas. This in turn has led to the development of more effective and practical guidelines for the fire regimes to be used in controlled burning for domestic livestock and wildlife management systems in the grassland and savanna areas. Research on the fire ecology of grasslands and savannas continues to enjoy scientific attention in Africa and currently there are active research programs being conducted in the Eastern Cape Province, KwaZulu-Natal Province and the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.