CASE studentship with Chester Zoo.


Humans have directly or indirectly changed all, or nearly all, ecosystems on the planet. Resource extraction, encroachment, competition with livestock and illegal hunting all impact on the resilience of natural populations and ecosystems both within and outside protected areas. Indirect effects such as climate change, biases in protected area distributions and changes to the water budget also impact on ecosystem resilience.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region particularly vulnerable to environmental change, with much of this region already suffering from water scarcity. Human activity has a substantial impact on water dynamics through extraction, canalisation, and climate change. Changes in water budgets have consequences for ecosystem functioning and health with arid and semi-arid regions the most likely to be affected. This is especially true in Sub-Saharan Africa where access to food and water is essential to address pressing issues of poverty, public health and desertification. Rainfall across the region is expected to become more unpredictable and drought more common (Dore 2005). Moreover, there are feedbacks between wildlife abundance and soil and water acidification, microbiological contamination of water sources, and soil mineral content in sub-Saharan African ecosystems (Strauch 2013).

Mega-herbivores are likely to be disproportionately affected by changes in resources and water budgets. Globally, 60% of mega-herbivores currently face extinction and 58% are experiencing population declines (Ripple et al 2015). African savannahs are home to the planet’s highest diversity of mega-herbivores. Their removal will lead to cascading effects on ecological processes and ecosystem services (Foster et al 2014). The primary threats to mega-herbivores are range collapse, poaching and competition with livestock. However, there is compelling evidence that the amount, quality and distribution of surface water is also of key importance (Ogutu et al 2014; Lea et al in review). Documenting the impacts of environmental change is essential for predicting future impacts of climate change, the optimal management of species and populations and providing recommendations for resource and protected area management.

harris_ndviProject Summary

To evaluate spatial and temporal patterns of environmental change in protected areas, this project will have two main objectives. First, the student will develop spatial and temporal models of surface water, soil moisture and above ground biomass change using remote Landsat images over the past thirty years. Second, the student will sample soil and water across protected areas to evaluate spatial and temporal patterns of acidification, as well as trace element, organic matter and microbiology composition.

Research questions

  1. Are there long-term trends in soil moisture and surface water availability in East and South African protected areas? Has seasonality or unpredictability of these measures increased over time?
  2. How is soil chemistry and water dynamics associated with mega-herbivore abundance and population performance across protected areas?


The student will be involved with a larger team working on conservation projects understanding variation in population performance in mega-herbivores (zebra, black rhinos, elephants and bongos) across Southern and Eastern Africa.

The student will investigate the potential relationships between water quality and availability as well as soil moisture and chemistry with mega-herbivore population characteristics.

Supervisory team

Dr. Susanne Shultz, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Shultz’s research focuses on understanding how species respond to environmental change.

Professor David Polya, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Prof. Polya’s research focuses on environmental geochemistry, particularly analytical chemistry of waters and soils and modelling exposure and health impacts.

Dr Angela Harris, School of Environment, Education and Development. Dr. Harris’ research involves using remote sensing to understand environmental change.

Sue Walker, Head of Applied Science, Chester Zoo. Dr. Walker’s research involves population management and welfare.

Primary contact: Dr Susanne Shultz ;