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  • Writer's pictureTyrone McKeith

Fire: A Burning Issue

During a stay with us this year (2024) at our camps in the Kafue National Park you may notice a lot of burnt areas throughout the game drive network. With this blog post we aim to give an insight into the role of fire in the ecosystem, its use as a management tool, and answer some frequently asked questions - specific to the recent fire in the Musekese Camp area.

Should you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact ourselves or Park Management!

The Good

Over millions of years, the dry season in Africa has enabled fires to occur across vast grasslands, savannah, and woodland areas. Many plant species and ecosystems benefit from these fires to remain healthy. This natural phenomenon has profoundly changed the structure and function of ecosystems. Frequent natural or human-induced fires have led to trees developing thicker bark to withstand fire, and many seeds will only germinate under the extreme heat.

Fires also prevent the buildup of vast amounts of biomass that may negatively affect plant and animal life and pose a significant risk if burnt. The encroachment of thick, unpalatable species of plants and trees may also impact the ability of an ecosystem to support grazers.

The Bad

The misuse or overuse of fire as a management tool can have negative impacts, particularly late dry season fires that may burn incredibly hot. Such fires can be devastating to both plant and animal life. Frequent burning of the same area might degrade the quality of the soil, resulting in the succession of highly unpalatable plants and grasses that outcompete those with higher nutritional values. This may negatively affect the density of grazers. Grasslands provide cover and refuge for a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and invertebrates. When an area is burnt, these creatures may become vulnerable.

The Ugly

A burnt ecosystem doesn’t look great! Some areas may have a green flush while others may remain blackened until the next rains toward the end of the year. This is due to different moisture content in soils from area to area. However, as shocking as it may appear, its ecological impacts are minimal/negligible considering this particular fire around Musekese was early and ‘cool’.

History of Fire in the Musekese Camp Area

Kafue National Park and the surrounding regions have been affected by uncontrolled fires for many decades, with the vast majority of the park burning annually. Together with our project, Musekese Conservation, we have been working hard to reverse this trend. We have successfully maintained a network of firebreaks in the area, enabling us to keep some areas free from fire while other areas burn. The idea is to create a mosaic of burned/unburned habitats that rotates from year to year, allowing fire to ‘do its thing’ while also providing adequate cover for the wildlife that needs it. This is widely accepted as best practice.

In 2022, African Parks assumed management responsibility for Kafue National Park alongside the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW). Part of their work includes establishing a fire management plan, which requires careful coordination with all stakeholders to deliver the desired level of landscape productivity, ecosystem services, and biodiversity outcomes. While we may have approached the subject differently, we acknowledge the need for a park-wide fire management program and support African Parks in their endeavors.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who burnt it? Was it planned?

  • This particular fire was set by Park Management as part of their early burning fire management strategy. Fires are sometimes set by fishermen, poachers, road users, and lodge operators.

Why has it all been burnt?

  • Despite the relatively early burn, the bush was already incredibly dry due to the drought conditions being experienced in Zambia. Together with high winds and a higher than usual fuel load, the fire burned faster and longer than anticipated. In the future, we hope to be included in the planning and implementation of such important activities in our area of operation.

How often does this happen?

  • Miombo woodlands (the principal habitat type in KNP) generally burn every 2-4 years due to both human-induced and naturally occurring fires. However, in the absence of a robust firebreak network and/or early burning regime, there is a risk that fires may come through every year.

What happens to all the ground-nesting birds and reptiles?

  • An early burn fire is considered a ‘cool’ burn due to lower ambient temperatures, relative humidity, and moisture in the grass/vegetation. This means that a fire will burn relatively slowly, allowing most creatures to escape the heat and smoke. Very few birds or reptiles nest in the cooler months of the year heading into winter.

What will the animals eat if the grass is all burned?

  • Of the multitude of antelope species in the Kafue, a large number are browsers feeding mostly on leaves and other plants, which are largely unscathed in an early season ‘cool’ fire. In the early season, much of the burned grassland will experience a green flush within 3-4 weeks of burning. Grazers are extremely fond of this green flush and have plenty to eat.

We hope this provides a comprehensive understanding of the role and management of fires in our ecosystem!


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