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Research article2021Peer reviewedOpen access

A network to understand the changing socio-ecology of the southern African woodlands (SEOSAW): Challenges, benefits, and methods

The SEOSAW partnership


Societal Impact StatementThe sustainable management of the southern African woodlands is closely linked to the livelihoods of over 150 M people. Findings from the Socio-Ecological Observatory for the Southern African Woodlands (SEOSAW) will underpin the sustainability of two of the largest industries on the continent: woodfuels and timber. SEOSAW will also improve our understanding of how human use shapes the biogeography and functioning of these ecosystems.SummaryHere we describe a new network of researchers and long-term, in situ, measurements that will characterize the changing socio-ecology of the woodlands of southern Africa. These woodlands encompass the largest savanna in the world, but are chronically understudied, with few long-term measurements. A network of permanent sample plots (PSPs) is required to: (a) address management issues, particularly related to sustainable harvesting for energy and timber; (b) understand how the woodlands are responding to a range of global and local drivers, such as climate change, CO2 fertilization, and harvesting; and (c) answer basic questions about biogeography, ecosystem function, and the role humans play in shaping the ecology of the region. We draw on other successful networks of PSPs and adapt their methods to the specific challenges of working in southern African woodlands. In particular we suggest divergences from established forest monitoring protocols that are needed to (a) adapt to a high level of ecosystem structural diversity (from open savanna to dry forest); (b) quantify the chronic disturbances by people, fire, and herbivores; (c) quantify the diversity and function of the understory of grasses, forbs, and shrubs; (d) understand the life histories of resprouting trees; and (e) conduct work in highly utilized, human-dominated landscapes. We conclude by discussing how the SEOSAW network will integrate with remote sensing and modeling approaches. Throughout, we highlight the challenges inherent to integrating work by forest and savanna ecologists, and the wide range of skills needed to fully understand the socio-ecology of the southern African woodlands.


dry forest; global change; permanent sample plots; savanna; sustainable management

Published in

Plants, People, Planet
2021, Volume: 3, number: 3, pages: 249-267