Grassland savannas - shown in pink on the map - merge seamlessly with open woodlands across a broad swathe of Africa, sandwiched between the deserts and rainforests. Depending on rainfall, altitude and other factors, they may be short-grass plains - such as those of the southern African ‘highveld', the east African grasslands, and the semi-arid fringes of the Sahara - or landscapes of impenetrable elephant grass, three metres high, that are cleared annually by fire. About 20% of the continent can be classified as ‘grassland savanna', although these grasslands are typically punctuated with Acacia (umbrella thorn) or Kigelia (sausage) trees, and the landscape is commonly a mosaic with patches of woodland and gallery forest.
Iconic images of Africa typically portray the vast herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles which migrate across the plains of East Africa, and the Maasai pastoralists, in their bright attire, who share this vast landscape. This is quintessential Africa - the location for two of Africa's best known world heritage sites - the Serengeti National Park, and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. These two adjacent sites form part of the wider Serengeti ecosystem, where the world's greatest migration of large mammals takes place. Local pastoralists are excluded from the national park, but they are allowed to live and graze their livestock in the Conservation Area - a bold experiment in multiple land use. Elsewhere, in the tall grass savannas north of the equator, are two further world heritage sites - Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo, where the last few northern white rhinos may still find sanctuary, hidden in the elephant grass; and Manovo-Gounda St Floris National Park in the Central African Republic, with its dwindling herds of elephants and other large mammals, threatened by war, the collapse of management and unprecedented levels of commercial poaching. Follow the links to learn more about these amazing places!
Slideshow of the main features of Africa's world heritage savannas
Iconic Species: The great migrating herds of grazing animals - wildebeest, zebra and gazelles - which roam the grassy plains, are pursued relentlessly by predators - lion, cheetah, and leopard, while scavenging hyaenas, jackals and vultures take advantage of the leftovers. Meanwhile, millions of tons of processed grass are recycled by armies of dung beetles, thus ensuring that nothing is wasted in the complex web of life. Today there are very few places where this complexity is maintained, and key species are under threat as never before. Rhino and elephant are under pressure from poachers, while predators (such as lions) are often poisoned by local pastoralists, and wild dogs succumb to rabies transmitted by domestic dogs.
Missing links: With just four world heritage sites presently recognised in Africa's grassland savannas there must be scope for new nominations. The southern African grasslands are not represented on the world heritage list, and there may be the possibility of a site around the Kalahari, or perhaps Etosha National Park in Namibia. The grassland savannas of southern Sudan, with their great migrations of white-eared kob and buffalo also offer intriguing possibilities.