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People, forest use and biodiversity on islands: models for global sustainability

Dr Martin Dallimer (SEE), Dr Tim Baker (SoG), Dr Ricardo Lima (University of Lisbon)

Project partner(s): ECOFAC, Associação Monte Pico

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Small island states comprise some of the world’s poorest countries and are often home to extraordinary levels of endemic biodiversity at substantial risk of extinction.  The underlying causes of both are somewhat interconnected, including limited access to natural resources and isolation, from markets, wealth, sources of genetic variation. In such circumstances, environmental and societal changes may be especially problematic if native forest and biodiversity are to be retained. Islands have been used as model systems in ecological and biodiversity conservation theory and practice. Nevertheless, island flora and fauna are also exceptionally vulnerable to extinction, with almost 90% of all recorded extinctions of birds having occurred on islands. Habitat loss, overexploitation and introduced species are among the reasons most frequently cited for such declines. Habitat loss can be especially critical on islands, where the total amount of available habitat is constrained by geography. 

The studentship will focus on the feedbacks and trade-offs across environmental and societal factors and how they interact to both shape, and be shaped by, the unique geography and biodiversity of small islands.  In particular, the studentship will take an interdisciplinary approach to understand how the links between forests, biodiversity and society vary in time and space, assessing the role of people with varying dependencies on forest resources (e.g. rural dwellers vs urban residents) and taking into account forest traits such as structure, function and biodiversity. 

While each island state is unique, the studentship will be based in the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, identifying patterns that might be relevant globally. São Tomé and Príncipe is the second smallest country in Africa, and lies 142nd on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Almost 90% of the country is forested and around a quarter of this is native. The importance of its biodiversity in the global context has long been recognised, mostly due to the high number of endemics, which outstrip “poster-child” biodiverse island systems such as Mauritius, and the Galapagos Islands. Despite this, we still know little about the populations, distribution and ecology of the endemic species or forest structure and function.

Depending on interests, the studentship could consider any or all of the following topics:

(i) Forest resilience to societal pressures, including historical and seasonal temporal elements

(ii) Quantifying the use of, preferences for and values associated with forests across a land use and urbanisation gradient 

(iii) Scenarios and global implications. Understanding the past and present can be pre-requisites for projecting into the future, and if São Tomé and Príncipe’s unique biodiversity and forest ecosystems are to be conserved, an awareness of likely future scenarios for the island will be essential. 

Some biodiversity datasets, along with historical material on land use and agricultural production exist for São Tomé and Príncipe within GIS, but the student will have the opportunity to extend these, for instance by building on the existing high quality avian datasets with additional taxonomic groups. The student could equally focus on forest structure and function across gradients of forest type/native and introduced tree species. Similarly, the addition of more recent remote sensed data on forest type, structure and change will be a valuable extension to the current knowledge base.

If desired, the studentship will have substantial opportunities for fieldwork, funded through the NERC DTP research allowance. During their time in the field the student would be working closely with Dr Ricardo Lima and his team, as well as experienced and knowledgeable local forest and biodiversity experts from ECOFAC and Associação Monte Pico. 

Within the University of Leeds, the student will have the opportunity to discuss their work within the Environment and Development Research Group in the School of Earth and Environment, as well as with the Ecology and Global Change research cluster in the School of Geography. This represents an exceptional opportunity to gain expertise and training across multiple disciplines.

Click here for a full project description.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Biology
  • Botany
  • Conservation
  • Conservation biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Environmental management
  • Environmental science
  • Geography
  • Natural resource management
  • Natural sciences
  • Plant science
  • Remote sensing
  • Spatial ecology
  • Sustainability
  • Sustainability and environmental management
  • Zoology