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Tree mortality in the African Sahel indicates an anthropogenic ecosystem displaced by climate change

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Abstract Aim 

Widespread reports of disappearing tree species and senescing savanna parklands in the Sahel have generated a vigorous debate over whether climate change or severe human and livestock pressure is principally responsible. Many of the tree taxa in decline are closely associated with human settlement and farming, suggesting that the parkland ecosystem may not be a natural vegetation assemblage. The aim of this study is to assess the possibility that human activities promoted the spread of taxa with edible fruit into dry Sudano-Sahelian areas during high-rainfall periods in the climate cycle. Location 

West African savannas (Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin). Methods 

Cultivated savanna parklands and adjacent forests and transitional landscapes were inventoried at 27 sites in five countries. All trees with basal diameters > 10 cm were counted within 500-m2 belt transects. Species composition and abundance were contrasted between three landscape classes to assess the degree of influence exerted by traditional human management. Twentieth century rainfall data were averaged for two sets of weather stations encompassing the north–south range of typical parkland tree species. Rainfall trends were used to evaluate the putative impact of climate change on edible and/or succulent fruit species at the northern limit of the parkland savanna zone. Results 

Species composition and spatial distribution data indicate that the parkland ecosystem is significantly shaped by human activities. Indigenous land management favours edible-fruit-yielding taxa from the wetter Sudanian and Guinean vegetation zones over Sahelian species. Rainfall isohyets at the northern range limits of parkland species shifted southwards in the late 20th century, crossing the critical 600-mm mean annual rainfall threshold for Sudanian flora. Relict vegetation and historical records indicate that the Sudanian parkland system extended in the past to near 15° N latitude in middle West Africa, compared with 13.5° N today. Main conclusions 

The current loss of mesic trees in the Sudano-Sahel zone appears to be driven by the sharp drop in rainfall since the 1960s, which has effectively stranded anthropogenically distributed species beyond their rainfall tolerance limits.
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Keywords: Agroforestry; Guinean zone; Sudanian zone; archaeobotany; desertification; drought; landscape ecology; parklands; savanna; senescence

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-06-01

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