Research into human-nature relationship helps protect biodiversity

Insight into the complex role that humans play in ecosystems are important for the conservation of global biodiversity. For decades, researchers at Utrecht University have studied national and international nature conservation efforts from an interdisciplinary perspective. Dialogue and collaboration with society, business and policymakers is a crucial element of nature conservation.

Biodiversity compensation can aid nature conservation

In 2021, Julia Jones (Bangor University, United Kingdom) began a five-year appointment as the Prince Bernhard Chair for International Nature Conservation at Utrecht University. "Tropical forests lock up carbon and so are an important nature-based solution to climate change. Forest conservation therefore has a global benefit, for every person on Earth. However conservation, if it prevents local people from carrying out their normal livelihood activities, can also bring costs to local people. Forest conservation, without sufficient thought given to local people, can mean some of the poorest people on the planet are left bearing the cost of tackling climate change."

Forest conservation, without sufficient thought given to local people, can mean some of the poorest people on the planet are left bearing the cost of tackling climate change.

Prof. Julia Jones
Prince Bernhard Chair for International Nature Conservation
A forest in Madagascar
A forest on Madagascar

The Professor by Special Appointment is fascinated by the question of whether nature conservation measures actually work. She has evaluated a wide range of measures, from protected areas and carbon trading mechanisms for forests, to compensation for loss of biodiversity. Much of Jones’ research is focused on Madagascar, where she has worked with scientific partners and local nature conservation groups for more than 20 years. Jones recently evaluated the biodiversity compensation for a large mine in the rain forests of Madagascar.

Jones: “This growing mechanism by which conservation is being funded across the world is called biodiversity offsetting. Industries pay for conservation in one location, to offset impacts of infrastructure development or mining in another. Despite a lot of interest there is very limited evidence of whether or not it works. Our recent analysis gives some hope that, under the right circumstances and with the right investment, biodiversity offsetting can have a role to play in reconciling infrastructure development and biodiversity conservation."

The Netherlands’ responsibility

Other scientists at Utrecht University have also conducted research projects in the tropics. Marijke van Kuijk, at the Faculty of Science, is an ecologist who focuses on tropical forests. According to Van Kuijk, the Netherlands bears an enormous responsibility when it comes to limiting the destruction of tropical forests for palm oil and soy production. “Deforestation is a billion-euro industry, and our country indirectly profits from it enormously. First, because almost all the food for our own livestock comes from those regions. But also because soy and palm oil are imported to the Netherlands and the rest of the EU via the Port of Rotterdam.”

Large animals disperse large seeds

A relatively new field of research for Van Kuijk is the effect hunting has on plant-animal interactions in tropical forests. “Hunting is an ongoing problem in places like South America. In French Guiana, for instance, it is done on a large scale by the French as a way of recreation. In Suriname, people largely hunt for their own livelihoods. There they hunt for larger animals, because they produce more meat. Large species generally reproduce slower, so in Suriname hunting leads to an ecosystem with far fewer individuals from larger species. They may even be faced with local extinction.”

Certain functions that the animals provide are affected by hunting, for instance seed dispersion.

Marijke van Kuijk
Dr. Marijke van Kuijk
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Science

Scientists have long known that hunting changes the composition of species in the animal community, but in French Guiana Van Kuijk and her colleagues have also proven that it can also change the functional characteristics of the animal community. “That means certain functions that the animals provide are affected by hunting, for instance seed dispersion, which is an important role animals play in tropical forests. If specific animals disappear that can observe the colours or scents of seed-bearing fruits, or transport the seeds over long distances, then the plant composition will also change over the long term.”

Marijke van Kuijk meet de omtrek van een boom
Marijke van Kuijk

Model studies have shown that the number of plant species with a low wood density increase in forests where people hunt, so the forest sequesters less carbon. Van Kuijk: “But interactions between plants and animals are more complex than that, and we are trying to unravel which functional characteristics of the animal community are lost due to hunting, and which cascading effects that has on plant communities and the functioning of the forest.”

Sharing the landscape with wild wildlife

In many parts of the world, humans and animals share the same landscapes. Ine Dorresteijn, Associate Professor at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development, explains that human-nature interactions in tropical landscapes often provide multiple benefits, but living together with wildlife can also lead to problems. “In Ethiopia, I studied smallholder farmers who are dependent on nature for their livelihoods. The people’s lives are so intertwined with the surrounding ecosystems that you really can’t separate humans from nature. But the farmers who live close to the edge of the forests face the risk of wild animals, such as warthogs, bushpigs and baboons, trampling and damaging their crops. Fences aren’t always an option, because they are expensive and they don’t offer protection against baboons.”


People therefore constantly guard their land, which presents considerable added costs, as Dorresteijn explains. “Not just monetary costs, but also ‘opportunity’ costs. When you’re watching your fields, you can’t work as a day labourer or get an education. Children are also tasked with guarding the fields, which means they miss school or don’t go to school at all. And there are the social costs of people missing important cultural activities, such as funerals or the tradition of bringing in the harvest together.”

Biodiversity offers some major benefits to human well-being, but it is also important to acknowledge that some people must bear a heavy burden when sharing the landscape with wild animals. Dorresteijn: “Conflict with animals living in the wild can have a negative influence on the conservation of biodiversity, for example when people go hunting for animals in reaction to these conflicts. One major challenge to biodiversity conservation lies in understanding these interactions, and then designing measures to more equally distribute the costs and benefits, both locally and globally.”

Wildlife management in the Netherlands

Wolven in het bos

Dorresteijn’s work is not only applicable to the tropics, but also to shared landscapes elsewhere in the world. For example, she also studies the relationships between humans and wildlife in the western Carpathian Mountains and in the Netherlands. Starting in January 2023, Dorresteijn will join the WildLifeNL research project. “Animals like wild boars, European bison, wolves, ungulates and semi-domesticated large grazers are returning to the Netherlands. As a result, people in the Netherlands are once again sharing the landscape with wild animals, which can lead to conflicts between humans and nature.”

People in the Netherlands are once again sharing the landscape with wild animals, which can lead to conflicts between humans and nature.

Dr. Ine Dorresteijn
Associate Professor, Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development

This wildlife comeback demands new forms of wildlife management that explicitly take interactions between wildlife and humans into consideration. “Wildlife management today is mainly focused on managing the numbers of animals”, says Dorresteijn. “We believe that it’s important now to study how we can better manage the behavioural interactions between wild animals and humans.” In an interdisciplinary consortium of researchers and social stakeholders, WildLifeNL aims to develop new technologies, policy arrangements and communication strategies that can influence the behaviour of wild animals and humans to facilitate them in living together without major conflicts. With this research, WildLifeNL will contribute to the search for a nature-inclusive society in which people and wild animals can both flourish.”