By Karina Berg, Global Grasslands and Savannahs Initiative Lead, WWF
There is no question that forests are magnificent. They have given rise to some of the world’s most stunning biodiversity and provide critical ecological services for the planet. Their role in mitigating climate change is widely recognised. It’s truly wonderful that our appreciation for the world’s forests continues to grow. And yet, is it possible that in the growing urgency to protect forests we’ve overlooked other equally irreplaceable ecosystems in the process?
Grasslands and Savannahs, also referred to as prairies, shrubland, llanos, rangeland, steppe, veld, meadows, campos and plains are equally important as providers of wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, water storage, and air filtration. A new atlas which WWF has co-authored puts their importance in context — more than half of all our planet’s land is grass-dominated ecosystems. Yet less than 10 percent of them are protected.
Unsustainable use of grasslands and savannahs
The primary threat to these grass-dominated landscapes is plow-up for agricultural expansion and development to feed and fuel a growing population. A prime example can be found in North America’s Great Plains: since 2009, 33 million acres have been plowed-up for row crop agriculture — that’s an area roughly four times the size of the Netherlands. Globally, we have transformed and now use an area of native grasslands and savannahs equivalent to the size of Australia to produce crops. The fertile soils these landscapes provide have sadly led to their unchecked conversion.
Climate change is also playing a central role in the loss of these ecosystems, resulting in drought and wildfire. The Mongolian Steppe, for example, is facing warming three times higher than the global average. It is predicted that an area of grass-dominated ecosystems twice the size of Europe will suffer drastic effects of climate change by 2050. Extreme temperatures and shorter growing seasons could jeopardise food security, water supplies and reduce the natural balance that enables healthy habitats for wildlife and people.
Another emerging threat to grasslands and savannahs is afforestation, for commercial production but also to mitigate against and adapt to climate change. This, however, overlooks the intrinsic value and benefits grasslands and savannahs provide as natural ecosystems.
We need to reframe the way that we think about grasslands and savannahs. They aren’t just blank canvases awaiting development or barren places devoid of life — far from it! They were the birthplace of the human species, provided our ancient ancestors a home, allowed the evolution of many plants and animals, and today continue to ensure food security, support livelihoods and maintain the cultural identity of millions of people around the world.
Healthy grasslands for people and nature
Found on every continent except Antarctica, grasslands and savannahs are home to some of the world’s most iconic species — like lions, giraffes, buffalo and wolves — and some of the most numerous species, harbouring thousands of invertebrates that play a critical role in soil fertility, plant growth, natural biological control and pollination. They were grazed for millennia by the largest herds of mammals ever but, from bison to wildebeest, numbers have dwindled and grasslands and savannahs are now home to many threatened and endangered species, like the tiger, elephant, black rhino and saiga antelope.
Grasslands and savannahs are thriving natural habitats. Think of them as inverted forests, with their enormous root systems that extend deep into the soil the equivalent of the forest canopy. The roots of these resilient plants and grasses bind the land together, decreasing erosion, and can be anything from 4 to 30 metres deep. If you look close enough you can find as many as 9 million nematode worms and thousands of insects in a square metre of healthy soil.
In fact, it has been suggested that grasslands and savannahs are able to store carbon more securely than forests. When a forest burns, a vast amount of carbon is released into the environment. However, when fire races across a grassland or savannah, most carbon remains within the soil. Thanks to the ability of these deep roots, the plants have evolved to recover quickly and regenerate after seasonal fires. Grasslands and savannahs also filter water and are the source of or support many of the world’s biggest rivers and wetlands. The seasonal rains also contribute to the generation of vast expanses of healthy grazing landscapes that fuel many of the world’s great wildlife migrations like Africa’s wildebeest and Asia’s Mongolian gazelle. And some of these landscapes provide critical stop over and wintering habitats for thousands of bird species along flyway migration routes in Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Protect, manage, restore
To truly have a shot at a positive future of our planet we must take the conservation of natural grasslands and savannahs into account. They can no longer take a backseat to other priority regions around the world. It is essential that grasslands and savannahs are elevated in the agendas of the up and coming high-level conferences, including the UN Food Systems Summit and the climate and biodiversity COPs. These ecosystems must be incorporated into the resulting climate and conservation commitments and must be recognised in the deforestation- and conversion-free commitments from governments and businesses. At the same time, we need effective protection and management of these precious ecosystems combined with the restoration of lost and degraded habitats. This will enable the conservation of a unique, extraordinary biodiversity, the capture and storage of critical amount of carbon, and the continued support to livelihoods of local communities who are so often the trusted guardians of our precious ecosystems.
The data is clear. If we really are serious about conserving nature, delivering against our global climate ambitions and sustaining a thriving food system it’s time to acknowledge, protect and restore the last natural grasslands and savannahs. We must embrace all the richness, wonder and diversity of our natural world, including and beyond forests.