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Threats:
Bush, savanna, and forest fires

© Erin Wessling

Bush, savanna, and forest fires

In the woodland-grassland regions of West Africa, fire has played a historical part in shaping ecosystems in the more arid biomes (Laris 2002; Giglio et al. 2006) – the West African savanna mosaic landscapes in Mali, Senegal, and the northern regions of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. Although thought to be caused naturally by lightning strikes in drier habitats, humans have been responsible for starting the majority of wildfires in the region for several centuries.

Marked increases in fire frequency and intensity over the past century have been linked to human activity, predominantly corresponding to increases in the number and timing of wildfires, as well as the structure and abundance of fire fuels. The introduction of grazing animals, reductions in megafauna, crop production, forest clearing, and early fire suppression are among a myriad of factors contributing to an increased likelihood of fires (Mbow et al. 2000; Bowman et al. 2011). Furthermore, humans are responsible for intentional and accidental fires for even more varied reasons, such as flushing out game for hunting, preparing fields for agriculture, pest reduction, as firebreaks, or simply clearing land for easier travel (Mbow et al. 2000; Laris 2002).

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© Erin Wessling

While human influence on current fire intensities is clear, little research has been conducted into the negative ecological effects of fire in West Africa, leading some to conclude that the detrimental aspects of fire are overemphasised. Historically, fires shaped habitat heterogeneity in these landscapes and perhaps even increased plant biodiversity. It would appear that a key component of the impact of fires in these landscapes is the timing of the fires themselves. Nonetheless, more research is needed to understand the role of fire in the ecosystem, the human contribution to this interchange, and ultimately the direct impacts of fire on chimpanzees in savanna mosaic regions.