Degradation (reduced tree cover) critically threatens biodiversity in the world’s largest savanna. Southern African savanna woodlands are unique ecosystems providing global benefits as carbon stores and habitats for rich biodiversity, and local benefits directly supporting 150 million livelihoods. Degradation here is widespread – impacting 17% of wooded land area – but ground data to elucidate its mechanisms and impacts on people and nature are lacking. My research aims to develop an understanding of degradation dynamics in southern African woodlands that is inclusive of local needs as well as national and international conservation goals.

Fieldwork for my project is based in Kilwa, a rural district in southeastern Tanzania, where I use both social and natural science methods to understand key aspects of degradation. In 2018, I focused on fire as a degradation driver, collecting data on causes and impacts of wildfire through 6 village meetings, 12 participatory mapping groups, 12 focus group discussions, 24 transect walks and 90 semi-structured interviews across 6 villages. In late 2019 I completed fieldwork for my National Geographic project “Degradation dynamics and impacts on large trees in the socioecological woodlands of Tanzania” which builds on recent research indicating that large diameters trees are keystone structures disproportionately dictating the carbon storage capacity, diversity, health, structure and functioning of wooded ecosystems. Field data on 2000 large diameter (>40cm)  trees (which were last measured in 2010/2011), recording: species, diameter, damage and mortality, resprouting and new recruits was collected to reveal degradation patterns and ecosystem resilience. I also spent some of my time in Kilwa in 2019 giving feedback to participants of my social science work, telling them what I’ve found in the data they provided me with, which I think is a very important stage in the research process.

Combining ecology with social science data will show changing ecosystem contributions to wellbeing over time and from multiple perspectives, synergies and trade-offs between social and environmental goals. This research has implications for targeted interventions and policy: for biodiversity, local communities and climate change mitigation, informing equitable and effective land management for socioecological savannas in Tanzania and across Southern Africa.

A poster I created summarising my research for the 2019 University of Edinburgh School of Geosciences Conference; you can also find the PDF version here.