October 2021

Blades of life

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Blades of life

Ishmael Nyathi
By Ishmael Nyathi
Field Guide

There are different types of grass species in the Singita Lebombo concession that attract a large number of animals. Grasses are very important in our ecosystem as it not only protects the soil against soil erosion but also is a food source to many different animal and insect species that all need to work together in order to balance the ecosystem. The grasslands play an important role in the development of a diverse community of animals, birds and insects that interact to form a complex food web. The grasses feed the herbivores, such a white rhino, zebra, buffalo, wildebeest and other antelope species, which in turn attract the carnivores, such as lions, leopards and cheetahs. The scavengers, like vultures and hyenas, follow. Then the decomposers (bacteria, fungi, termites) break down the leftover organic matter, making it available to producers (the grasslands), which completes the cycle of a healthy, well-balanced ecosystem.

However, certain species of grasses need to be controlled by fire in order to aid in their rejuvenation process because the moribund grass can suffocate the growth of new blades, which is a threat to the balance of the ecosystem. In this case, there is human intervention in the form of controlled burns. It is important to do management burns at the right time of year, in perfect conditions, to minimize the risk of a runaway fire that can cause unintended damage to the ecosystem and decimate large areas of grasslands. In September 2020, a fire managed to jump the firebreak of one of our neighbouring reserves. The fire burned for 4 days non-stop.

It has been interesting to observe the changes that the uncontrolled fire made to our concession’s ecosystem. In the burnt areas, different species of grass, such as red grass (Themeda triandra), stinking grass (Bothriochloa radicans) and guinea grass (Panicum maximum), are now flourishing. We have also noticed that in areas where guinea grass used to have a stronghold, red grass is now the dominant species. These changes in the grasslands have had a ripple effect on the wider ecosystem. Animals that used to frequent different areas are now moving into the burnt areas where the hierarchy of grasses has changed. Buffalos, zebras, wildebeest and white rhinos have changed their habits to follow the grass. As a result, some predators are also starting to frequent those areas, following the game. It is even attracting different bird and insect species.

Grass is highly dynamic, but it is often underrated. It is one of the blades that weaves our environment together. Grasses play a vital role in the wellbeing of the biome and are an indication of a healthy, balanced ecosystem.