Conservation and Research
January 15, 2019

Keystone Species & their role in Ecosystem Restoration

Somkhanda Game Reserve is a community-owned game reserve managed by Wildlands, a programme of Wildtrust, in partnership with the Gumbi community & the Emvokweni Community Trust.

Wildlands has re-introduced a number of different species onto Somkhanda Game Reserve. In 2014 African Wild Dogs were introduced to fulfill the conservation objective of saving endangered species, and reintroducing endangered species into the system. 2016 saw the arrival of Elephant and Buffalo and a year after that, Lion. Many of the world’s species are at the edge of extinction but great effort is being made to save them and to conserve the ecosystems they are a part of.

The Importance of Keystone Species

Intact ecosystems perform many vital functions; air and water purification, turning decaying matter into nutrients, preventing erosion and flooding, and moderating climate. Some species are particularly important to the health and resilience of their ecosystems. These are called keystone species, and their absence can greatly affect the entire system. Elephants, Lions, Vultures and even termites are examples of keystone species.

As large predators, Lions are responsible (among other things) for keeping prey populations under control and removing sick, weak or genetically compromised animals from the system. Antelope and Zebra are grazers, and without Lions, or other large predators to keep numbers in check, overgrazing may occur. Without vegetation to keep the soil in place, the once lush plains could become desert.

What are other Keystone Species?

Elephants also play an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they live. By pulling down trees and opening up thick bush they form open spaces for travel and the extra sunlight allows grass to grow. In turn White Rhino and Buffalo maintain these diverse grasslands on which countless other species depend. Although termites are only a fraction of the size of some of these other animals, collectively their colonies play a vital role in nutrient cycling and maintaining soil health. Many species, from Bats to Elephants, assist with seed dispersal within a system. Pollinators, such as bees, maintain gene flow and dispersal throughout widespread ecosystems ensuring plant diversity.

Vegetation is the base of the food web. Extinction of one plant species may lead to the extinction of an animal species. Each species is interdependent on another to continue the life cycle, each contributes to ecosystem resilience. Today, Somkhanda is thriving, the ecosystem is being restored, and it is a privilege to witness.

Wildlife ACT, the Gumbi Community and Wildlands, a programme of WILDTRUST, work together to ensure that Somkhanda’s endangered species are closely monitored and protected.

- Text & Video by Senior Wildlife ACT Monitor: Pippa Orpen