Grasslands, shrublands and savannahs cover approximately half of the world’s terrestrial surface. Distributed from Eurasia and Patagonia to Africa and Australia they are home to millions of people including pastoralists, ranchers, fishers and hunter-gatherers, and contribute to the livelihoods, health and food security of billions more.
Grasslands, shrublands and savannahs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Often arid or semi-arid in nature, plants and animals have uniquely adapted to the climate and these areas are hotspots for endemic and often threatened species. Iconic fauna from lions and rhinoceros to giant anteaters and wallabies, with thousands of bird and insect species, make these ecosystems a conservation priority and a tourist draw.
Humans evolved in these areas millions of years ago. Ever since, humans have played an important role in maintaining, cultivating and managing these areas through planned fires, hunter-gathering, and pastoralism. Livestock play a key role in reducing biomass loads, moving around nutrients, trampling and breaking crusted soil surfaces improving soil infiltration, and increasing diversity. Not only is carbon stored in vegetation above the earth’s surface, but there are also significant amounts in roots and tubers below ground and in the soil itself.
Many grasslands, shrublands and savannahs will be affected by climate change, including temperature increases and more variable weather patterns. Degradation of these ecosystems have increased their vulnerability and increases the likelihood of human-wildlife conflicts and disease spillovers. Investments in their restoration are woefully behind that of other ecosystems such as forests.
There is an urgent need for restoration of grasslands, shrublands and savannahs concurrent with good management practices. Actions to help degraded drylands rebound include re-seeding and planting native grasses, forbs (broadleaf plants that are not woody or grass-like) and shrubs; controlling indiscriminate conversion of these lands; and implementing adaptive livestock-management practices that suit the local ecological settings. These practices may include using livestock to control non-native weed species, mixing different animals for more diverse grazing impact, increasing livestock mobility to allow rest and recuperation of pastures, and altering the timing and intensity of grazing certain areas.
Reintroductions and protections for key plant and animal species that have been lost or have low populations may be necessary. The balance between woody species and grasses can be restored through use of fire and other management tools.
Restoring shrublands, grasslands and savannahs means working with those using, protecting or studying the land. The extraction of resources such as water, wildlife, minerals, or non-timber forest products must be sustainable. Strengthening governance systems, secure tenure rights for land users and appropriate management practices is equally important.
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