Plain by name, complex by nature

Although at first glance they may not seem as impressive as craggy mountaintops or lush tropical rainforest, grasslands are anything but boring.

As their name suggests, these wide expanses of flat, mostly treeless open plain are dominated by the growth of grasses. These narrow-leafed plants are abundant worldwide and collectively form one of the largest habitats on the planet, covering an estimated 50 million square kilometres – around 40% of our planet’s land area.

Grasses thrive in good light but are able to survive extended periods of low rainfall and scorching heat. Their matted root systems can even withstand seasonal fires, allowing the leaves to regenerate when the rainy season arrives. Grasses owe their durability to the fact that their leaves continue to grow from the base even after the tips are damaged or consumed by grazing herbivores.

Around the globe, grasslands have different names: from the llanos and pampas of South America to the North American prairies, and from the steppes of Central Asia to the southern African veldt and the savannahs of East Africa. Each has its own unique mix of vegetation and inhabitants, depending on the amount of rainfall, temperature and soil quality, but all are incredibly fertile environments that support a tremendous diversity of species.

Grasslands are home to all manner of animals, from colossal herbivores such as elephants and rhinos to the teeming colonies of insects that underpin the entire ecosystem. Without grasslands we would miss out on some of nature’s most remarkable spectacles – from migrating wildebeest thundering across the African savannah and bison dotted across the American prairies, to herds of the unusual -looking saiga antelope picking their way across the Central Asian steppe.

Armadillos, aardvarks and anteaters hoover up the abundant invertebrates in their respective ranges; steppe eagles, servals and secretarybirds pick off the smaller vertebrates; and charismatic carnivores such as leopards and lions prey on the plentiful herds of large herbivores.

Where we work:
Kazakhstan

Grasslands cover an estimated 50 million square kilometres, or around 40% of the total land area on Earth.

10,000

different species make up the grass family, which is one of the most diverse in the plant kingdom.

1,751

plant species are found on the Agulhas Plain in South Africa – the richest grassland on the planet.

Threats to grassland environments

Grasslands and the species that they support are predominantly at risk from human activity. These large expanses of flat, fertile and easily accessible land are prime candidates for privatisation and development. The nutrient-rich soils are perfect – at least initially – for agriculture. Not even the vast savannahs of eastern Africa have escaped unscathed, despite much of the land being so arid.

Grasslands in other regions, too, have been overexploited, and are suffering for it. Large swathes of grassland are cleared and ploughed to grow crops, excessively grazed by livestock, and irrigated to the point that their soil quality is depleted, the nutrients stripped away.

As the human population increases, more and more grasslands are also disappearing beneath the concrete and tarmac that is replacing natural landscapes all around the world. What’s more, some infrastructure developments such as roads, pipelines and fences also disrupt the migration routes of grassland species.

Climate change also poses additional concern, with rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns putting even the most resilient grassland habitats at risk of turning to desert. Many species rely on a predictable rainy season, and without this they will struggle to survive.

Grassland-dependent biodiversity is threatened not only by the disappearance and fragmentation of its habitat, but also by other human activities such as illegal wildlife trade. Just as the American bison was almost driven to extinction at the end of the nineteenth century, some of our most iconic wildlife is under severe pressure from poaching – often on an industrial scale – for meat, horns and ivory.

It is not only wildlife that stands to lose from the decline of grasslands and their biodiversity, however. Humans have depended on these habitats since time immemorial, and the loss of these habitats threatens us all. However, for vulnerable and marginalised communities – including indigenous and pastoralist communities – the disappearance of grasslands could quickly prove catastrophic.  Indeed, such communities have been instrumental in shaping many of the world’s grasslands through their traditional grazing and management practices.

How are we helping to protect grassland biodiversity?

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has grasslands biodiversity at its very roots, so to speak. Back in 1903, the perceived need to protect the herds of game on the African savannah from overexploitation by game hunters provided the original rationale for establishing FFI as the first international wildlife conservation organisation. Since those early days, our remit has expanded well beyond Africa to encompass grasslands – and the species and communities they support – across the entire globe.

Examples of FFI’s work in this area include:

  • Engaging with rural communities to reduce habitat degradation and fragmentation on the Central Asian steppe, one of the last grassland wilderness areas in Eurasia and home to globally important species including the critically endangered saiga antelope;
  • Supporting wildlife conservancies in Kenya’s northern rangelands, including Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which harbours East Africa’s largest black rhino population;
  • Protecting elephants and other large herbivores in Chuilexi Conservancy at the heart of Mozambique’s vast Niassa National Reserve, which is also one of the continent’s most important refuges for African wild dogs and lions.

Learn more about our work in this environment