I started my PhD at ZEF – Center for Development Research in 2013 with a stipend from the WASCAL program (West African Science Service Center for Climate Change and Adapted Land Use), funded by BMBF (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research). At ZEF, I work on large-scale biodiversity modeling in the department of Ecology and Natural Resources Management.
What is your research all about? Which practical use does your work have?
I am interested in the drivers of biodiversity at a large scale level. In other words, in the factors that shape the biodiversity that we observe today and why this diversity varies from one area to another. Understanding these underlying drivers can help us to evaluate the type and quantity of biodiversity that will exist in the future, when the conditions will have changed. By using complex system modeling, we can correlate these parameters with indices of biodiversity.
Climate modeling and observations show that the climate is changing more dramatically in the tropics. Many of these regions, like West Africa, also have very high population growth which intensifies human pressure on the land. Climate change and anthropogenic pressure combine with each other and cause large scale environmental perturbations. My work intends to predict in which area of West Africa these perturbations will trigger biodiversity loss and destabilize the way ecosystems function.
Climate change and inappropriate land management have effects on biodiversity. Can you explain the reasons for this? Why is a constant status of biodiversity so important for younger generations?
Species are adapted to their environment and can support a degree of variability and change in environmental conditions, but if the changes are too rapid and too significant, some species will not be able to cope with the perturbation and will face risks of extinction. On a broader level, this can destabilize an entire ecosystem and alter its biodiversity. Of course, with time species could evolve and adapt to new conditions, but such processes take place over thousands of years. The changes in the climate that we are seeing today happen much faster and observable changes can be seen in a matter of decades. Ultimately, it is a question of time scale, if variations are too quick they will not allow time for species to adapt.
Land management practices are determined by political choices but also by the population’s need for food and organic materials, like wood or cotton. As these needs grow we observe a conversion of natural habitats into arable land. This phenomenon is particularly observable in West Africa. Agricultural systems are comparatively very poor in terms of diversity, and the space available for more complex natural systems is thereby reduced, extinguishing rare and valuable species in the process.
Ecosystems are composed of living organisms, but they can also be considered as living entities themselves. In that sense they are not static systems, but evolve, adapt and respond to changes. Acknowledging the dynamic nature of ecosystems unveils a new understanding of conservation science. Trying to conserve a constant level of biodiversity is perhaps not as critical as maintaining the equilibrium of ecosystems. Resilience, the capacity of ecosystem to maintain their essential structures and properties under moderate changing conditions, is a key concept to grasp the complexity of biodiversity conservation. Consequently we may have to rethink the way conservation programs should be designed. Instead of being mainly species oriented, the conservation priority could be ensuring that ecosystems do not suffer dramatic changes that overtake their resilience capacities.
Human societies depend in so many ways on services rendered by ecosystems. Trying to artificially replace or repair them can only be done at a very high cost, often beyond our reach. Biological diversity is the backbone of ecosystem resilience, providing them with a variety of species and genes to cope with environmental change. But perhaps most of all, biodiversity is a wealth, and we can only begin to imagine its potential uses for future generations. Its value comes from the millions years of development necessary to produce diversity and because species extinction is a one way process. Once lost, it is forever and totally impossible to recreate. This is a scary idea!
What is your personal recommendation for living sustainable in daily life?
We should take more care in our personal energy consumption. Transport is a particularly energy consuming activity and I support public transportation especially for daily commuting. In addition, riding bicycle is ideal for moving around locally and it is very cost effective. I think we should investigate interconnections between different transport systems and support the development of flexible transport solutions, combining the train, bicycle, rented vehicles, etc… Cities have become so densely packed that transport is no longer a private matter, and personal vehicles have lost their convenience, taking too much space, being too heavy and energy consuming.
Moving towards a new way of thinking about product life cycles is another essential component of a sustainable lifestyle. Starting to care and think about what happens to a product once we no longer need it or when it has reached the end of its usable lifespan can have a considerable impact on lowering our energy consumption and reducing waste accumulation, especially in developing countries where recycling structures and regulations are weaker.