Save the tiger! Save the Grasslands! Save the Water!


Environmental drivers of spatio-temporal dynamics in floodplain vegetation: grasslands as habitat for megafauna in Bardia National Park (Nepal)

By Jitse Bijlmakers, Jasper Griffioen and Derek Karssenberg

Disturbance-dependent grasslands, often associated with hydromorphological and fire dynamics, are threatened, especially in subtropical climates. In the Nepalese and Indian Terai Arc Landscape at the foot of the Himalayas, natural and cultural grasslands serve a viable role for greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and for grazers that form prey of the Royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris). The grasslands are vulnerable to encroachment of forest. We aimed to establish the effects of environmental drivers, in particular river discharge, river channel dynamics, precipitation and forest fires, on the spatio-temporal dynamics of these grasslands. The study area is the floodplain of the eastern branch of the Karnali River and adjacent western part of Bardia National Park. We created annual time series (1993–
2019) of land cover with the use of field data, remotely sensed LANDSAT imagery and a supervised classification model. Additionally, we analysed the pattern of grassland patches and aerial photographs of 1964. Between 1964 and 2019, grassland patches decreased in abundance and size due to encroachment of forest. Outside the floodplain, conversion of grassland to bare substrate coincides with extreme precipitation events. Within the floodplain, conversion of grassland to bare substrate correlates with the magnitude of the annual peak discharge of the bifurcated Karnali River. Since 2009, however, this correlation is absent due to a shift of the main discharge channel to the western branch of the Karnali River. Consequently, alluvial tall grasslands (Saccharum spontaneum dominant) have vastly expanded between 2009 and 2019. Because the hydromorphological processes in the floodplain have become more static, other sources of disturbances – local flooding of ephemeral streams, anthropogenic maintenance, grazing and fires – are more paramount to prevent encroachment of grasslands. Altogether, our findings
underscore that a change in the environmental drivers impact the surface area and heterogeneity of grassland patches in the landscape, which can lead to cascading effects for the grassland-dependent megafauna.

Jitse Bijlmakers, Jasper Griffioen and Derek Karssenberg
Biogeosciences, 20, 1113–1144, 2023