Change in woody cover at representative sites in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, based on historical imagery
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Background: The coexistence of woody vegetation and grass is a key characteristic of savanna ecological balance. Gains in woody vegetation at the expense of grass can lead to changes in grazer and browser carrying capacities on the savannas. This study examined long-term change in woody cover at four study sites representative of the geology and rainfall in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Scanned 1940/1942, 1968, and 1977 high spatial resolution (0.44-1.35 m) panchromatic aerial photographs were used, supplemented by 5 and 10 m resolution 1998 and 2012 panchromatic and red band grey scale digital SPOT images. The imagery datasets of the respective study sites were georeferenced to the UTM projection. Woody cover on the imagery was enhanced using texture analysis, and mapped by unsupervised classification of the texture images using the K-means clustering algorithm. Change in woody cover was mapped using Boolean addition Geographic Information System overlay analysis. Results: The results indicated 29 and 40 % reductions in woody cover for the southern granites and southern basalts sites, respectively. The northern granites and northern basalts sites, on the other hand, had gains in woody cover over the analysis period. The location context-specific factors of fire frequency and elephant density, and not rainfall fluctuations, explained most of the change in woody cover. Conclusions: The results point to the need for location context-specific management of fire and elephant concentrations. The changes in woody cover are likely to have effects on the grazer and browser carrying capacities of the savannas in the Kruger National Park.