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Cattle versus wildlife: The battle for food has benefits

Cattle and zebra sharing a site with lush pasture that sprouted after burning.
[Image courtesy of Ryan Lee Sensenig]

In Africa, the widespread belief among small subsistence farmers and commercial ranchers alike is that nearby wildlife compete with livestock for food. The solution for most farmers is to kill off wildlife. These eradication efforts are troublesome to scientists and others concerned about biodiversity conservation.

Here, Wilfred Odadi from the African Wildlife Foundation and colleagues tested the long-held assumption that cattle and wildlife compete for food. The research will appear in the September 23rd issue of the journal Science.

In their experiment in an East African savanna, the researchers examined how large plant-eating wildlife like giraffes, zebras and elephants affect the diet of cattle. It turns out that cattle do complete with wildlife for food, but this takes place primarily in the dry season when food is hard to come by.

In contrast, during the wet season when grass and other plants are abundant, wildlife grazing actually benefits cattle by improving pasture quality.

For example, Odadi and colleagues found that zebras improve grazing conditions for cattle by gobbling up dead, fibrous grass stems that livestock can't digest. The results could prove useful for conservation efforts.