Universiteit Leiden

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Nature and wild animals in Africa and Indonesia

Leiden University investigates biodiversity not only in the Netherlands, but also abroad, with the goal of improving global nature conservation. We do so in collaboration with local universities. Education is also high on our agenda.

Large predators

In many places people share their habitat with large predators, which can sometimes cause problems. Not that there are many attacks on humans, but their livestock are targeted. ‘In Leiden we do a lot of research on this type of human-wildlife conflict,’ explains De Snoo. ‘We try to discover what factors influence it – both biological and socio-economic ones.’ Such research results in clues on how to avoid this type of conflict. In this context Leiden carries out studies of wolves in Ethiopia, tigers in Nepal and lions in Africa; the research on lions in particular has been going on for many years.

In Kenya, lions leave Nairobi National Park at night and break through the fences put up by cattle breeders. They kill more cattle than they eat. As a result, many lions are killed out of revenge. ‘One of the things we’re investigating is ways of scaring lions off,’ explains Francis Lesilau, a Leiden PhD student from Kenya. ‘Flashing lights seem to be quite effective. As a result, lions only dare hunt cattle during the day. And then they are much less likely to be successful, especially when a shepherd is guarding the herds.’ His project has a strong social component. ‘There are all kinds of challenges,’ he explains. ‘The flashbulbs are expensive, and they tend to work only when they’re used by all farmers. This means that we need support from local organisations.’ And guarding herds during the day is difficult. Traditionally, it has been a job for children, but they go to school nowadays. Lesilau: ‘We need a new social system, with older people guarding the animals. And people have to learn to value lions again. Information and education are key.’

The south side of Nairobi National Park is unfenced. This was never a problem because there was a vast savanna between the park and the city outskirts. Due to the enormous population growth, houses and industry are encroaching on the park, so that lions leaving the park are almost immediately among the houses and farms.

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The basis of this research was laid by the then 13-year-old Richard Turere who observed that flashlights deterred lions from attacking his family's cattle. View his inspiring TED talk:

Research project 'Human-lion conflict around Nairobi National Park'


Leiden University has always maintained close relations with a number of universities in Indonesia. We conduct joint research and supervise one another’s PhD students, in particular in the field of biosciences and sustainability. For example, an Indonesian biologist recently completed his dissertation in Leiden on the restoration of areas of sea grass along the coast. And a Leiden legal expert worked on improving the enforcement of Indonesian environmental regulations in Djakarta.

‘This collaboration is valuable for all parties,’ explains Geert de Snoo, Professor of Conservation Biology, who has been closely involved in establishing the Leiden-Indonesia partnership. ‘Combining expertise generates a lot of knowledge that is immediately applicable in nature management.’ As an example, he mentions the research on forest elephants on Kalimantan that sometimes damage palm oil plantations. ‘You can only prevent it by understanding how and where forest elephants live, how many there are and what factors determine their choice of food,’ De Snoo explains.

Sustainable forest management

Together with an Indonesian university, Leiden researchers are investigating the effect of sustainable forest management on Kalimantan. Does the system of sustainably produced wood, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) quality label, work in practice? What aspects are effective and where do the challenges lie? ‘There has been a lot of criticism of certification schemes,’ De Snoo says, ‘but their effect on biodiversity has hardly been studied at all. And this is precisely what our biologists are doing. It seems that areas with more sustainable forest management really do promote biodiversity, in particular of plants and birds.’ Together with local organisations, the researchers are developing ways to improve forest management.

Winter school

In 2017 Leiden and Indonesian students jointly followed a winter school programme on Java. This course formed part of the Leiden University interdisciplinary minor on Sustainable Development. Through lectures and field work, students were introduced to tropical biodiversity in Indonesia and the principles of sustainable development. ‘We are now working on a follow-up together with Naturalis, this time in the marine area,’ says Peter van Bodegom, Professor of Environmental Biology and coordinator of the winter school. ‘This time we’re focusing on topics such as mangroves and corals.’ This kind of joint winter school not only teaches students a lot in terms of content, he emphasises, but also culturally. ‘It’s an experience for life.’

At the winter school 12 Leiden and 12 Indonesian students work together on a research project.

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Dutch ambassador in Indonesia Rob Swartbol about the winter school.
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