Telling people that I study fire and how it influences herbivores elicits a range of responses that can generally be placed into two groups: (1) anger that I am burning herbivores; (2) confusion that it will take me a whole PhD to work out that they run away from fire, fast. To address the first group, I certainly don’t set about my day burning animals, largely because as the second group states most animals escape the flames by running away and those that can’t are usually adapted in one way or another to escape the heat.
To address the second concern I mentioned; while animals initially move away from the flames it is the exact opposite response that occurs in the post-fire environment. Animals are attracted to an area after it burns, that interests me, and has been of interest to our species for a very, very long time. Rather than send animals charging away, the smoke of a fire seems to act as a beacon to attract grazers. In African savannahs it is initially zebra that move in and feed on the dense ash layer left behind. However shortly after a burn the grass layer takes advantage of the high light, high nutrient environment and shoots up green and lush. This results in a bonanza for all grazing herbivores, drawing them in from the surrounding landscape.
The most popular depiction of this is likely the Lion King, which shows that after the lightning fires that rage during Simba’s epic battle with Scar, a new ‘fresh’ world appears and all the animals rejoice. There is not a huge amount of other ecological perspectives to take from that particular classic (e.g. hyenas do not have a vested interest in the rise of a socially damaged, Kalahari lion, to power) but the fresh growth after that thunderstorm is a fairly accurate depiction of how fire can replenish a savanna landscape after the dry season, to the great relief of large grazing herds.
Why is this of interest to humans? Given that ancestral humans initially appeared and evolved in savanna systems and slowly grew an affinity for eating meat, it is of little surprise that our hunter-gatherer ancestors understood grazers attraction to burnt areas and used it to improve their hunting techniques. Burnt areas meant higher concentrations of game, and so hunting in burnt areas could improve success – and once fire was able to be controlled it could be used to draw animals into more desirable areas. This early use by hunters developed into pastoral practices as wild game shifted to domesticated stock and fire was used to re-invigorate tired pastures.
Today fire management remains one of the most valuable management techniques to modern day cattle farmers with a well-developed understanding on how often and what season to burn for specific outcomes. Rather than worry about chasing animals away, the big doubt about my research should revolve around why I am studying something that has been understood by our species since we first shifted to a diet that demanded improved hunting capabilities. The simple answer is that like any long-term relationship; the long standing relationship between humans (and animals) and fire is complicated. So while I attempt to woo you with images and videos of fire, I’ll also be hoping you take an interest in my written pieces regarding why my research is still necessary for the conservation of some of the most iconic mammals within Africa and globally.
Author: Jason Donaldson, Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, M.Sc in Ecology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Disclosure statement: Jason Donaldson receives funding from the National Research Foundation of South Africa and his project is funded by the Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) competitive grants program.