27 Jun 2022
27 Jun 2022
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal BG.

Environmental drivers of space-time dynamics in floodplain vegetation: grasslands as habitat for megafauna in Bardia National Park (Nepal)

Jitse Bijlmakers1, Jasper Griffioen2,3, and Derek Karssenberg1 Jitse Bijlmakers et al.
  • 1Department of Physical Geography, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, the Netherlands
  • 2Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, the Netherlands
  • 3TNO Geological Survey of the Netherland, Utrecht, the Netherlands

Abstract. Disturbance-dependent grasslands, often associated with hydromorphological and fire dynamics, are threatened, especially in subtropical climates. In the Nepalese and Indian Terai Arc Landscape at the foot of the Himalayas, natural and cultural grasslands serve a viable role for rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) and the prey of the Royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris). The grasslands are vulnerable for encroachment of forest. We aimed to establish the effects of environmental drivers, in particular river discharge, river channel dynamics, precipitation, and forest fires, on space-time dynamics of these grasslands. The study area is the floodplain of the eastern branch of the Karnali River and adjacent western part of Bardia National Park. We created two annual time series of land cover with the use of field data, remotely sensed LANDSAT imagery and a supervised classification model. Additionally, we analysed aerial photographs of 1964 and the pattern of grassland patches. From 1964 to 2019, grasslands saw a transition to forest and grassland patches decreased in size and number. Outside the floodplain, successional setbacks of grassland coincide with extreme precipitation events. Within the floodplain, successional setbacks of grassland correlate with the magnitude of the annual peak discharge. However, this relationship is absent after 2009 due to a westward shift of the main discharge channel of the bifurcated Karnali River with a vast expansion of alluvial tall grasslands (Saccharum spontaneum dominant) as consequence. Since 2009, hydromorphological processes in the floodplain have become more static. This is supported by an observed decrease in water coverage (-53 %) in the dry season, an absence of successional setbacks, and decreased morphodynamics of river channels. For forest fires, the surface area that annually burns is observed to be more variable in recent years and the maximum extent affected by fires is in an increasing trend. Because the hydromorphological processes in the floodplain have become more static, other sources of disturbances – ephemeral streams, anthropogenic maintenance, grazing and fires – are more paramount to prevent encroachment of grasslands. Altogether, our findings underscore that a change in the environmental drivers impact the surface area and heterogeneity of grassland patches in the landscape, which can lead to cascading effects for the grassland-dependent fauna.

Jitse Bijlmakers et al.

Status: open (until 08 Aug 2022)

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  • RC1: 'Comment on bg-2022-129', Romullo Louzada, 16 Jul 2022 reply

Jitse Bijlmakers et al.

Jitse Bijlmakers et al.


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Short summary
We used earth observation and datasets of environmental drivers (floods, river channel migration, precipitation and forest fires) to study the space-time dynamics of natural and cultural subtropical grasslands at the foot of the Himalayas. The changes in surface area and heterogeneity of grassland patches, which serve as habitat for the prey of the Royal Bengal Tiger, are attributed to a decrease of anthropogenic disturbances and a relocation of the dominant river channel of the Karnali River.