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Media Release: Rhinos and Termites Contribute to Biodiversity

Date: 28th April 2008

No matter how big or small, creatures like white rhinos and termites are both key species to sustain and promote biodiversity. This is just one of the messages that delegates of the 2008 Science Network Meeting in Skukuza heard this week.

No matter how big or small, creatures like white rhinos and termites are both key species to sustain and promote biodiversity. This is just one of the messages that delegates of the 2008 Science Network Meeting in Skukuza heard this week.

Because of the way they graze, white rhinos benefit a wide variety of insects, spiders, birds and even other mammals. “White rhinos are basically huge lawnmowers that create open lawns, but leave some areas of tall grass undisturbed,” Dr Richard Fynn of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who is doing research in the Kruger National Park, explained. “This patchiness is essential for biodiversity.”

Some species are short grass specialists, while others prefer long grass. Some need a place to hide, while others prefer open spaces where they can see predators. “It would make sense to introduce more white rhinos to the central basalt plains of the Kruger National Park where expanses of tall grasses are currently limiting biodiversity and where blue wildebeest numbers have declined,” Dr Fynn believes. “White rhinos will allow blue wildebeest numbers to increase, because they prefer to graze on short grass and also use open areas as a way to detect predators.”

Cleo Gosling, a PhD student from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and currently working in the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, found similar results for white rhinos there. Another reason why rhinos benefit biodiversity is that their middens add fertilizer to the environment, and also attract a wide variety of birds and insects. Birds and insects come to pick through the dung for seeds, while dung beetles help to spread the fertilizing effect.

She has found that termites too encourage biodiversity in similar ways to white rhinos. Termites also keep grasses short, especially in the areas around their mounds. They are especially important because the remove a lot of dead plant material, thereby creating space for re-growth of new plants that will attract more grazers. “Without termites, we would be neck-deep in dead plant matter,” she says. “Termites don’t generally compete with grazers, whether it is cattle or wildlife, but rather facilitate the constant rejuvenation of the ecosystem, thereby helping grazers.” Farmers sometimes destroy termite mounds or poison termites because they think termites are competing with their livestock, whereas termites will mostly benefit the grazing available for cattle, she explained.

When mature, winged termites, known as alates, fly out of the mounds, they provide a feast for a wide range of birds, insects, reptiles and even small carnivores, such as jackals. Termites are also an important source of food for aardvark. Aardvark holes, in turn, create important niches for a wide range of other animals.

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Issued by:
Raymond Travers, Media Relations Practitioner, Kruger National Park. Contact: Tel: 013 735 4116, cell: 082 908 2677
Enquiries:
William Mabasa, HOD: Public Relations and Communications, Kruger National Park. Contact: Tel: 013 735 4363, cell: 082 807 3919

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