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Michiel Veldhuis

Undoubtedly, climate change and increasing human populations will affect Africa’s wildlife – but how exactly? And what can be done to conserve nature? Michiel Veldhuis formulated five testable hypotheses of what might happen and now investigates how the UN Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved. He received the Early Career Award of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Improving our understanding of the global carbon cycle

The large mammals that roam the grasslands and savannahs of Africa fascinate both tourists and biologists alike. The latter wonder how so many species of large herbivores manage to coexist without outcompeting each other. Michiel Veldhuis points to differences in food (browsers vs. grazers), the need for water, heat tolerance and vulnerability to predators and pathogens. Considering these traits and their interactions, he formulated five testable hypotheses to find out how the community of herbivores may be affected by climate change (Ecology Letters, 2019).

Predators and a warmer climate

One of Veldhuis’s hypotheses holds that predation risks prevent intermediate-sized herbivores from adapting their behaviour to global warming (Nature Ecology and Evolution, 2020). ‘We already have empirical evidence for this,’ he says. ‘In areas in southern Africa without lions, intermediate-sized herbivores, such as gemsbok and zebra, switch their activity to cooler hours when daytime temperatures rise, as camera-trap data showed. But in areas where lions are present, they don’t, because lions hunt during these cooler hours. So, the presence of lions limits their capacity to adapt to higher temperatures. Larger animals like buffalo, however, can safely switch to cooler hours, as their large herds make them less vulnerable to predation. And smaller animals such as hartebeest don’t need to switch; they have less difficulty dissipating excess heat because of their larger surface-volume ratio.’ To complete the picture, Veldhuis is now measuring coat thicknesses of herbivore species at Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

‘We will look for places in Africa where different Sustainable Development Goals are successfully pursued, analyse best practices and see whether these can be implemented elsewhere.’

A social ecologist

In 2015, the United Nations adopted seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, targeting both human well-being and nature conservation. In a second line of research, Veldhuis investigates how different goals could be reconciled, in collaboration with the Africa Studies Centre Leiden. ‘Often, something that promotes one goal, for instance eliminating poverty, jeopardises another, for instance life on land,’ he says. ‘We look for examples in Africa in which both people and nature benefit. To this end, we’ll analyse data from the field to monitor progress towards reaching the goals, analyse best practices, and see whether these can be implemented elsewhere. We will also take a closer look at developments in Kenya, a country that has data available from forty years of research. I started my career as an ecologist, but I’m becoming more and more of a sociologist as well.’ 

Early Career Award

In November, Veldhuis was selected to receive an Early Career Award from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) for his research on the impact of human activities on nature in Africa. From 2019 on, the award has been given to twelve promising young scientists each year. The award ceremony will be on 15 February.


Since his Biology Master’s in Groningen, Michiel Veldhuis (1985) has dedicated his research to African wildlife. His interest may stem from his birthplace in Zambia, where he lived for the first two years of his life and which he revisited when he was fifteen years old. After finishing his PhD in Groningen on South African ecosystems, he carried out postdoc projects in Groningen and Princeton (US) on human-nature interactions in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania and Kenya. He came to Leiden in 2019, to continue his research as assistant professor of Environmental Ecology.

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