Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp 59–80

Rivers Through Time: Historical Changes in the Riparian Vegetation of the Semi-Arid, Winter Rainfall Region of South Africa in Response to Climate and Land Use

Special issue: Environmental History


This paper examines how the riparian vegetation of perennial and ephemeral rivers systems in the semi-arid, winter rainfall region of South Africa has changed over time. Using an environmental history approach we assess the extent of change in plant cover at 32 sites using repeat photographs that cover a time span of 36–113 years. The results indicate that in the majority of sites there has been a significant increase in cover of riparian vegetation in both the channel beds and adjacent floodplain environments. The most important species to have increased in cover across the region is Acacia karroo. We interpret the findings in the context of historical changes in climate and land use practices. Damage to riparian vegetation caused by mega-herbivores probably ceased sometime during the early 19th century as did scouring events related to large floods that occurred at regular intervals from the 15th to early 20th centuries. Extensive cutting of riparian vegetation for charcoal and firewood has also declined over the last 150 years. Changes in the grazing history as well as increased abstraction and dam building along perennial rivers in the region also account for some of the changes observed in riparian vegetation during the second half of the 20th century. Predictions of climate change related to global warming anticipate increased drought events with the subsequent loss of species and habitats in the study area. The evidence presented here suggests that an awareness of the region’s historical ecology should be considered more carefully in the modelling and formulation of future climate change predictions as well as in the understanding of climate change impacts over time frames of decades and centuries.


climate change environmental history hydrology repeat photography water flow 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Botany DepartmentUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Centre of African StudiesUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUnited Kingdom

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