Elephants limit aboveground carbon gains in African savannas

Andrew B. Davies, Gregory P. Asner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Understanding the drivers of vegetation carbon dynamics is essential for climate change mitigation and effective policy formulation. However, most efforts focus on abiotic drivers of plant biomass change, with little consideration for functional roles performed by animals, particularly at landscape scales. We combined repeat airborne Light Detection and Ranging with measurements of elephant densities, abiotic factors, and exclusion experiments to determine the relative importance of drivers of change in aboveground woody vegetation carbon stocks in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Despite a growing elephant population, aboveground carbon density (ACD) increased across most of the landscape over the 6-year study period, but at fine scales, bull elephant density was the most important factor determining carbon stock change, with ACD losses recorded only where bull densities exceeded 0.5 bulls/km 2 . Effects of bull elephants were, however, spatially restricted and landscape dependent, being especially pronounced along rivers, at mid-elevations, and on steeper slopes. In contrast, elephant herds and abiotic drivers had a comparatively small influence on the direction or magnitude of carbon stock change. Our findings demonstrate that animals can have a substantive influence on regional-scale carbon dynamics and warrant consideration in carbon cycling models and policy formulation aimed at carbon management and climate change mitigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1368-1382
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019


  • Carnegie Airborne Observatory
  • Kruger National Park
  • LiDAR
  • South Africa
  • aboveground carbon density
  • carbon cycling
  • herbivory
  • megaherbivore
  • woody encroachment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Elephants limit aboveground carbon gains in African savannas'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this