Fixed-point photo monitoring supplemented by animal census data and climate monitoring potential has never been explored as a long-term monitoring tool for studying vegetation change in the arid and semi-arid national parks of South Africa. The long-term (1988-2010), fixed-point monitoring dataset developed for the Camdeboo National Park, therefore, provides an important opportunity to do this. Using a quantitative estimate of the change in vegetation and growth form cover in 1152 fixed-point photographs, as well as series of step-point vegetation surveys at each photo monitoring site, this study documented the extent of vegetation change in the park in response to key climate drivers, such as rainfall, as well as land use drivers such as herbivory by indigenous ungulates. We demonstrated the varied response of vegetation cover within three main growth forms (grasses, dwarf shrubs [< 1 m] and tall shrubs [> 1 m]) in three different vegetation units and landforms (slopes, plains, rivers) within the Camdeboo National Park since 1988. Sites within Albany Thicket and Dwarf Shrublands showed the least change in vegetation cover, whilst Azonal vegetation and Grassy Dwarf Shrublands were more dynamic. Abiotic factors such as drought and flooding, total annual rainfall and rainfall seasonality appeared to have the greatest influence on growth form cover as assessed from the fixed-point photographs. Herbivory appeared not to have had a noticeable impact on the vegetation of the Camdeboo National Park as far as could be determined from the rather coarse approach used in this analysis and herbivore densities remained relatively low over the study duration.
Conservation implications: We provided an historical assessment of the pattern of vegetation and climatic trends that can help evaluate many of South African National Parks' biodiversity monitoring programmes, especially relating to habitat change. It will help arid parks in assessing the trajectories of vegetation in response to herbivory, climate and management interventions.