Yvette C. Ehlers Smith, David A. Ehlers Smith,T. Ramesh, Colleen T. Downs
Biodiversity and Conservation
The Indian Ocean Coastal Belt (IOCB) of South Africa is a natural forest-grassland mosaic, nested within an anthropogenic, mixed land-use matrix. Given the ongoing threat of agricultural expansion and urbanisation, we assessed the value of a buffer habitat (Coastal dense bush) for conserving forest species. We investigated the influence of microhabitat complexity on mammal communities within forest and dense bush habitats, using occupancy modelling. We found vertical stratification gradients as observed in studies of tropical forest chronosequence, i.e. increased foliage density in lower habitat layers and decreased foliage density in higher habitat layers for dense bush, and vice versa for forest. Structural composition suggests that dense bush is within a successional stage of secondary forest regeneration. Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) occupancy was higher in forest than dense bush, while the opposite was true for blue duiker (Philantomba monticola). Large-spotted genet (Genetta tigrina), Cape porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) and marsh mongoose (Atilax paludinosus) occupancy remained constant between habitats. Grey duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) occupancy varied greatly between dense bush (0.48 ± 0.01) and forest (0.16 ± 0.01). Dense bush appeared to maintain natural forest assemblages, and may play a crucial role in buffering IOCB forest patches, given their highly-restricted distribution. However, dense bush habitats have no protection status, but play a role in the conservation of forest plants and animals. Therefore, we advocate the inclusion of dense bush habitats in conservation networks focused on forests.