Inaugural lecture Frank van Langevelde: “Just ringing the alarm isn’t going to protect nature”

June 21, 2022

“Wild animals are not only spectacular and amazing; they also affect our lives. That’s something we shouldn’t forget.” This is a remark from Wildlife Ecology and Conservation professor Frank Langevelde during his inaugural lecture on Thursday 23 June 2022.

The professor took over as chair holder of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation group, formerly known as Resource Ecology, in 2019. With Van Langevelde in charge, nature conservation and protection are high on the agenda. What does nature require for its survival, how do you ensure that natural processes can run their course, and what size should a nature reserve be to allow for that?

To answer questions of this magnitude, the group’s research has expanded from the grazers of the African savanna to other parts of the world. “We use knowledge about tipping points – critical thresholds that are sensitive to small disruptions, which can lead to sudden, drastic changes, ed. – that we have acquired in the tropics in other regions as well, such as the Netherlands and areas with conifers and tundra vegetation. Even though reasons for landscape changes may be different, the changes can be just as sudden, and their processes can be rather similar. Likewise, we also introduce knowledge in the tropics.”

Measuring heart rate and temperature

The past few years, Van Langevelde and his colleagues have extended their research with questions regarding the influence of predators and the influence of ambient temperature on behaviour and distribution. “The coming time, I want to investigate the physiology of wild animals. We’ll be collaborating with animal scientists to measure the heart rate and body temperature, which they already have plenty of experience with thanks to their work with farm animals.” He hopes that this will help to better explain the spread, numbers and behaviours of animals.

Ecology and conservation

There’s an increasing number of new questions about nature conservation; about wolves in the Netherlands, for example. Another instance would be the research on the scarce large blue, a butterfly species that lays its eggs on perennial host plants. The caterpillars, however, can only survive if they hibernate in an ant nest. Van Langevelde: “The question is whether the females can identify those ant nests or whether they choose certain plants with a certain texture that happen to be close to ant nests. This is a typically fundamental ecological question; if you were to approach this from a conservational point of view, then you’d look at what makes the environment attractive for both these plants and the ants.”

Preventing poaching

Although Van Langevelde leads his group in both ecology and conservation, his heart is in fundamental ecological research in Africa. It so happens to be that ecology and conservation intersect in one of his own research projects. Van Langevelde and his colleagues tracked antelopes and zebras using transmitters to gain insight in their responses to predators. “Their behaviour was disrupted for several hours after a lion had passed the group,” he explains. “That made us wonder whether this pattern would repeat if poachers were in the area, looking for elephants and rhinos.” However, it seems possible to distinguish disruptions from lions and humans, which enables Van Langevelde to develop a method to outsmart poachers. Ultimately, he hopes to use satellite images to track animals.

Telling stories

Van Langevelde’s enthusiasm is infectious as he tells the stories of wildebeests, elephants, and scarce large blues. “That’s so much more effective than just ringing the alarm about biodiversity loss,” according to the professor. “The loss of species is often not directly visible, but it’s there.” Van Langevelde hopes that inspiring stories show the public and politics that nature is worth protecting.

His suggestion for a concrete goal to reduce biodiversity loss would be to allocate a specific percentage of nature area, in the Netherlands as well as elsewhere. “Ideally that would be about 50 per cent of our land. But since that’s not possible, let’s aim for 25 per cent to start with.” After all, that’s already about twice as much as it is at present.