Getting African grasslands right, for people and wildlife alike: Q&A with Susanne Vetter

  • Africa’s vast grasslands are well known for their iconic wildlife, but far less appreciated for the other ecosystem services they provide, including sequestering immense amounts of carbon and supporting millions of people practicing the ancient occupation of livestock herding.
  • Susanne Vetter, a plant ecologist at Rhodes University in South Africa, studies the roles not only of plants but also of people in these landscapes.
  • Through her work she has gained a rosier view of pastoralism, and its ability to coexist with wildlife, than many conservationists and policymakers hold.
  • Mongabay recently interviewed Susanne Vetter via email about common misconceptions of African grasslands and the pastoralist communities who depend on them.

All across the arid and semi-arid landscapes of Africa, grasslands meet the eye. These ecosystems provide a wealth of environmental services, sequestering immense amounts of carbon (grazing lands store up to 30% of the world’s soil carbon, by one estimate) and harboring tremendous biodiversity. This includes some of the world’s most iconic remaining megafauna, such as elephants, rhinos and lions, and epic annual migrations of 1.5 million thundering wildebeest.

These immense swaths of grass also sustain people practicing one of the world’s most ancient occupations: livestock herding. Some 268 million pastoralists live in Africa, contributing an estimated 10-44% of the GDP of African nations, according to a 2013 African Union report. Out of necessity, herders are resourceful, innovative and resilient. They require large areas of land to graze their livestock, which is why many pastoral communities across the world are nomadic or semi-nomadic. Their cows, goats, camels and sheep convert what other people may dismiss as wasteland into milk and meat. At times, these animals are the only viable way to make a living in remote, dry landscapes.

Yet as populations of both people and their animals burgeon, as grasslands become segmented through fencing, property privatization, development projects and extractive industries, and as government policies encourage shifts away from pastoral livelihoods, both herders and the grasslands they depend on are facing new challenges. At the same time, pastoralists often take much of the blame for declining grasslands. Conservationists and farmers accuse herders of having too many livestock that trample sensitive vegetation and edge wildlife out as they overgraze the landscape.

Susanne Vetter, an associate professor of plant ecology at Rhodes University in South Africa, studies these rangeland dynamics across arid and semi-arid parts of the country. Much of her research and teaching focuses on plant adaptations and vegetation dynamics. But she says she has always been fascinated by people’s deeper relationship with plants and nature, and this theme has taken root in her studies as well. Through her work she has gained a rosier view of pastoralism than many conservationists and policymakers take.

Susanne Vetter out in the field, a grassy biome in the background. Image courtesy of Susanne Vetter.

“I believe that pastoralism and wildlife are compatible and probably the combination is the most ecologically appropriate form of land use in these parts,” Vetter says. She adds that she believes traditional methods of herding are a more sustainable and ecologically appropriate way to manage drylands than the main alternatives: “fenced-in” ranching and other intensive forms of farming.

Vetter also notes that people often misunderstand the intrinsic productivity of grasslands and their utility to local communities, and that this often manifests in ecologically inappropriate development strategies that threaten both grasslands and pastoral livelihoods, such as attempts to convert grassy biomes into agricultural plots or forests.

Mongabay contributor Kang-Chun Cheng recently interviewed Susanne Vetter via email about common misconceptions of African grasslands and the pastoralist communities who depend on them. The interview was edited for length, clarity and style.

A cow catching up with the rest of the herd as they make their way home at the end of the day in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Mongabay: Could you tell me a bit about your work? What is currently the most exciting aspect of your research?

Susanne Vetter: My research is very diverse and includes the ecological dynamics of rangelands, the cultural values of biodiversity, and the functional ecology of savannas and thickets. I am interested in the drivers that have shaped vegetation in the past (climate, fire, herbivory, humans) and how they are changing the vegetation into the future. Currently what excites me most is expanding my research to other parts of Africa through field visits and collaboration with other African scholars. It is allowing me to gain a better understanding of the large-scale patterns in these dynamics across sub-Saharan Africa.

Mongabay: What is it about traditional pastoralism and the human culture behind it that helps it inherently coexist with wildlife conservation?

Susanne Vetter: Like wildlife, traditional pastoralists and their livestock had to survive and thrive in environments where productivity varies hugely in space and time, often with a severe dry season. As a result, densities of livestock and people tended to be sparse and mobile, and many areas far from water were inaccessible to humans and their livestock while providing habitat for wildlife, thus reducing conflict.

However, there are few areas today where traditional pastoralism hasn’t been affected by land use change, provision of supplementary feed and water, conflict over resources and changes to the lifestyles and aspirations of the pastoralists themselves. As a result, the compatibility with wildlife is now much more variable.

Fundamentally, however, pastoralism and wildlife are compatible at least to an extent, and the natural vegetation of savannas and grasslands is well adapted to being grazed and browsed. Compared to plowing or other intensive forms of land use, extensive pastoralism is the most ecologically sound land use in these vegetation types.

Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) dotting the grounds of Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia County, central Kenya. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Mongabay: What are some foundational misconceptions in the rangeland narrative?

Susanne Vetter: When I did my Ph.D. research on land degradation in communally managed rangelands in South Africa, I became acutely aware of the mismatch between mainstream development thinking and the realities on the ground. The knowledge and experience of local land users were neglected in the development process and implementation of rangeland policy.

As an academic in plant ecology, I have become aware of how strongly ecological thinking and training are shaped by ecological paradigms originating in the Global North. Notably, vegetation type is determined primarily by climate; fire and herbivory are rare disturbances. Large areas of the world are natural grasslands, savannas, and other open ecosystems wet enough to support forest, but maintained by fire and/or herbivory. Specialist flora and fauna have adapted to these conditions. There is still a common misconception that open ecosystems were created by humans through overgrazing and deforestation — this has led to myriad inappropriate interventions to increase tree cover.

Within agriculture, African pastoralism has long been viewed as inefficient and destructive. Narratives about the “Tragedy of the Commons” and the “cattle complex” have led to the widespread assumption that pastoralists aim to amass livestock for individual gain on a shared resource, which inevitably becomes overused. These narratives ignore the complexities of local livelihood systems, as well as the history of these systems, including their traditional management and how this has become increasingly modified and constrained.

Mongabay: Why do so many people seem to get the narrative wrong?

Susanne Vetter: A key issue is a persistent focus on increasing productivity and stability, which is at odds with the inherently unstable, unpredictable nature of drylands that form the basis of most pastoral systems. The attraction of “greening the desert” is as seductive as always, even though there are good reasons why deserts aren’t green. There is plenty of evidence that greening through tree planting and irrigation schemes is unsustainable and damaging. In Diana Davis’ book The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge, she provides a fascinating analysis of how modern development thinking has remarkable continuities with colonial forestry and colonial resource management. Such entrenched paradigms are hard to change.

At the same time, it is overly simplistic to see “development” as a monolithic, homogeneous endeavor. Many organizations have long been embracing and promoting more land user-centric and locally appropriate approaches. But scale has become a recurring problem. Locally appropriate and sustainable approaches often take time, but don’t result in striking increases in outputs and are hard to scale up. Yet many funders want to see big impact in a short time and over large areas.

There is an obvious gap when one goes to any conference on ecology, conservation, or rangelands, even when the focus is the tropics: the limited number of African ecologists generating and contributing original knowledge to these global debates. Despite Africa being home to a large part of the world’s savannas and most of the world’s extant megafauna, the number of senior, research-active African savanna ecologists is vanishingly small in comparison to the size of the international ecological community. Many African academics with their students studied abroad themselves, on a diet of ecology curricula that fail to represent African open ecosystems and their dynamics. This perpetuates the situation where inappropriate ecological models and worldviews inform development.

Maasai goats nibbling the local vegetation just outside the main gate of Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya near the Tanzanian border. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Mongabay: Could you speak a bit about the capacity of grasslands to sink carbon in the context of afforestation — growing trees where they didn’t historically exist — or reforestation — growing trees where forests did historically exist?

Susanne Vetter: The contribution of grasslands to carbon storage has indeed been widely overlooked. Much of the focus when it comes to deforestation and tree planting is on the carbon stored above ground, in the wood of trees. Grasslands don’t have high aboveground biomass but store large amounts of carbon in their extensive root systems and the soil. When grasslands burn, the carbon released during the fire is quickly recovered in the next season’s growth. At the same time, when roots die back after fire, the carbon released from the breakdown of the dead root material is incorporated into the soil. Carbon storage in the soils of grasslands is resilient to fire and grazing, while extreme hot and dry weather events and wildfires make forests increasingly vulnerable to losing their stored carbon.

However, grassland soils quickly lose their carbon when they are plowed or otherwise disturbed (e.g. afforestation). It is thus important to recognize the role grasslands play in capturing carbon and to protect remaining natural grasslands from soil disturbance. Low-intensity grazing by wildlife and/or livestock is the most naturally compatible way to protect the carbon storage function of grasslands.

Mongabay: What are some successful models of forest landscape restoration in the African context? What sets them apart from others that may be well-intentioned but miss the mark?

Susanne Vetter: There is no doubt that many areas have experienced negative land use and can benefit from restoration. The key is involving local land users and land managers from inception — their knowledge and needs must inform intervention type, location, and timeline. Understanding the local and larger-scale ecological, social and political dynamics will help to ensure that strategies are based on correct assumptions and models. All this takes time and requires more than a technical “fix.”

The Shinyanga region in Tanzania is a good example. Since 1986, over 300,000 hectares [741,000 acres] of transformed acacia and miombo woodlands have been restored in over 800 villages, at scales ranging from individual household plots to village forests. A conducive policy environment, the inclusion of local knowledge, and recognizing the livelihood benefits of the restoration initiative all contributed to this initiative’s success.

In other cases, trees may not be the answer — sometimes, they may even be the problem. South Africa is a water-scarce country with vast areas of fire-driven grasslands, savannas, and shrublands. Invasive exotic trees have a massive impact on streamflow and therefore water security; this has led to a massive public works program called “Working for Water.” Every year, large areas are cleared of water-thirsty exotic vegetation while creating employment for thousands of workers. The positive effect on water yields makes the project cost-effective and sustainable.

Mongabay: What are viable strategies to support traditional pastoral land use while optimizing the process with new findings?

Susanne Vetter: While recognizing the merits of traditional mobile pastoralist systems, it is important to acknowledge that societies and their cultures are not static. The challenge is to foster aspects of traditional pastoralism that are ecologically sound and viable while remaining open-minded and innovative to counter new challenges. The mobility [that is] key to resilience has greatly reduced through increasing populations, competing for land use, shrinking pastures, and/or pastoralists’ desire to remain closer to schools and other services.

Mobility allows vegetation to recover between periods of grazing, ensuring the survival of herds in rangelands where forage production varies throughout space and time. Safeguarding pastoralist access to seasonal resources is crucial. Supplementary food during the dry season also plays an important role. The caveat is the risk of excessive grazing impact during the wet season. Livelihood diversification is vital to buffering the uncertainty of a fluctuating and shrinking resource base, as is access to markets for livestock, livestock products, and information (e.g. market prices and seasonal forecasts that help with planning).

Maasai market day near Kimana Sanctuary in southern Kenya. Cattle are prized possessions amongst the Maasai and a sign of both wealth and power. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Mongabay: I would love to hear a bit more about your experience in South Africa; how does pastoralism play out there?

Susanne Vetter: South Africa has incredible ecological and cultural diversity. The vegetation ranges from arid shrublands and heathlands to grasslands and savannas to forest. In the succulent winter rainfall shrublands of Namaqualand, the descendants of Khoi Khoi pastoralists still practice a form of semi-nomadic pastoralism with sheep and goats. Traditional African agropastoralism that was widely practiced in the grasslands and savannas has been heavily modified by decades of colonial and apartheid rule, which confined people of African descent to a small fraction of the country’s land. High population densities and widespread migrant labor to support rural households have led to greatly reduced herds and a dwindling contribution of livestock to livelihoods. The challenges are significant: increasing rates of unemployment, high population densities, increasingly frequent droughts and widespread bush encroachment where trees proliferate because there is less fire, more grazing and elevated atmospheric CO2. The material and cultural role of livestock remains strong, however, and the challenge is now to find innovative and locally appropriate ways to support livestock farming as part of diverse livelihood strategies in this changing world.

In contrast, large areas of South Africa are sparsely populated with extensive areas of land owned by (still mostly white) commercial livestock farmers and conservation areas. One noticeable shift has been a widespread shift from livestock farming to keeping wildlife for ecotourism or hunting.

Mongabay: Could you please describe a recent interesting research project or experiment?

Susanne Vetter: Through a long-standing collaboration with Michelle Cocks, an anthropologist who also works at Rhodes University, we have been delving deep into the relationship rural and urban Xhosa-speaking people in South Africa have with nature. The findings have blown us away — despite lifestyles that are a far cry from traditional agropastoralism, the connection to nature is still deep, and inextricably linked to cultural practices such as resource use and rituals. Apart from providing natural resources, nature also offers a place of reflection, healing and identity. Research and interventions aimed at developing and conserving African ecosystems would benefit from engaging more with people’s worldviews, practices and experiences that shape their relationship with the land they live in.

Banner image: Two Maasai boys tasked with bringing the herd home in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Image by Kang-Chun Cheng.

Kang-Chun Cheng is an environmental photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, with an interest in community-based natural resource management and traditional ecological knowledge.


Schuman, G., Janzen, H., & Herrick, J. (2002). Soil carbon dynamics and potential carbon sequestration by rangelands. Environmental Pollution, 116(3), 391-396. doi:10.1016/s0269-7491(01)00215-9

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