A premilinary assessment of the extent and potential impacts of alien plant invasions in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, East Africa
van Wilgen, B.W.
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This article provides a preliminary list of alien plant species in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa. The list is based on broad-scale roadside surveys in the area and is supplemented by more detailed surveys of tourist facilities in the Masai-Mara National Reserve and adjoining conservancies. We encountered 245 alien plant species; significantly more than previous studies, of which 62 (25%) were considered to have established self-perpetuating populations in areas away from human habitation. These included species which had either been intentionally or accidentally introduced. Of the 245 alien plants, 212 (including four species considered to be native to the region) were intentionally introduced into gardens in the National Reserve and 51 (24%) had established naturalised populations within the boundaries of these tourism facilities. Of the 51 naturalised species, 23 (11% of the 212 alien species) were recorded as being invasive within the ecosystem, outside of lodges and away from other human habitation. Currently, the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is relatively free of widespread and abundant invasive alien plants, with a few exceptions, but there are extensive populations outside of the ecosystem, particularly to the west, from where they could spread. We address the potential impacts of six species that we consider to pose the highest risks (Parthenium hysterophorus, Opuntia stricta, Tithonia diversifolia, Lantana camara, Chromolaena odorata and Prosopis juliflora). Although invasive alien plants pose substantial threats to the integrity of the ecosystem, this has not yet been widely recognised. We predict that in the absence of efforts to contain, or reverse the spread of invasive alien plants, the condition of rangelands will deteriorate, with severe negative impacts on migrating large mammals, especially wildebeest, zebra and gazelles. This will, in turn, have a substantial negative impact on tourism, which is a major economic activity in the area. Conservation implications: Invasive alien plants pose significant threats to the integrity of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem and steps will need to be taken to prevent these impacts. The most important of these would be the removal of alien species from tourist facilities, especially those which are known to be naturalised or invasive, the introduction of control programmes aimed at eliminating outlier invasive plant populations to slow down the spread, and the widespread use of biological control wherever possible.