CR 17:217-228 (2001)  -  doi:10.3354/cr017217

Desertification and a shift of forest species in the West African Sahel

Patrick Gonzalez*

Earth Resources Observation Systems Data Center, US Geological Survey, Washington, DC 20523-4600, USA

ABSTRACT: Original field data show that forest species richness and tree density in the West African Sahel declined in the last half of the 20th century. Average forest species richness of areas of 4 km2 in Northwest Senegal fell from 64 ± 2 species ca 1945 to 43 ± 2 species in 1993, a decrease significant at p < 0.001. Densities of trees of height ≥3 m declined from 10 ± 0.3 trees ha-1 in 1954 to 7.8 ± 0.3 trees ha-1 in 1989, also significant at p < 0.001. Standing wood biomass fell 2.1 t ha-1 in the period 1956-1993, releasing CO2 at a rate of 60 kgC person-1 yr-1. These changes have shifted vegetation zones toward areas of higher rainfall at an average rate of 500 to 600 m yr-1. Arid Sahel species have expanded in the north, tracking a concomitant retraction of mesic Sudan and Guinean species to the south. Multivariate analyses identify latitude and longitude, proxies for rainfall and temperature, as the most significant factors explaining tree and shrub distribution. The changes also decreased human carrying capacity to below actual population densities. The rural population of 45 people km-2 exceeded the 1993 carrying capacity, for firewood from shrubs, of 13 people km-2 (range 1 to 21 people km-2). As an adaptation strategy, ecological and socioeconomic factors favor the natural regeneration of local species over the massive plantation of exotic species. Natural regeneration is a traditional practice in which farmers select small field trees that they wish to raise to maturity, protect them, and prune them to promote rapid growth of the apical meristem. The results of this research provide evidence for desertification in the West African Sahel. These documented impacts of desertification foreshadow possible future effects of climate change.

KEY WORDS: Desertification · Forest biodiversity · Land cover change · Natural regeneration of forest species · Senegal · Vegetation zone shift · West African Sahel

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