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Perceived impacts of woody encroachment on ecosystem services in Hluhluwe, South Africa

Linda Luvuno, Centre for Sustainability Transitions, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Reinette Biggs, Centre for Sustainability Transitions, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Nicola Stevens, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Karen Esler, Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa


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Anticipating, avoiding, and managing disruptive environmental change such as regime shifts and the impacts it has on human well-being is a key sustainability challenge. Woody encroachment is a globally important example of a regime shift that occurs in savanna systems, where a large fraction of the world’s poor live. Woody encroachment is known to negatively impact a variety of ecosystem services, but few studies have investigated the impact of woody encroachment on local land users and their livelihoods. In this study, we conducted semi-structured interviews to determine how different land users—local subsistence communities and managers of conservation tourism areas—perceive woody encroachment in the Hluhluwe region of South Africa, how it affects the ecosystem services they rely upon, and what costs they incur in undertaking activities to reverse woody encroachment. Most interviewees perceived trees to be increasing in the landscape (83%). However, perceptions about the causes of woody encroachment differed: community members cited the reduced usage of trees as the reason for woody encroachment, whereas conservation managers mostly attributed the change to increased CO2. Most community members felt woody encroachment was harmful to their household and general well-being, citing loss of grazing for livestock, and fear of attacks by wild animals and criminals as the main impacts. In contrast, conservation managers perceived woody encroachment to have both harmful and beneficial impacts, with the main negative impacts being loss of grazing for wildlife and impacts on tourism through reduced visibility for game viewing. All the conservation areas invested in tree clearing compared to only 20% of respondents in the community areas, where an average of ZAR367 (US$25) was spent per year on clearing, compared to ZAR293,751 (US$20,000) and ZAR163,000 (US$11,000) spent in private game reserves and government reserves, respectively. Our findings highlight the negative impacts of ongoing woody encroachment, the differentiated impacts it has on different land users, and differences in capacity to combat encroachment. These findings highlight the need for state-funded management interventions to support clearing of trees in encroached areas, particularly in communal areas.

Key words

communities; conservation; human well-being; regime shifts; savanna; social-ecological systems

Copyright © 2022 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087