Understanding the impacts of climate change and people on biodiversity, carbon stocks, and human wellbeing in the second largest rainforest on Earth


Climate change, human modification, and changes in biodiversity are fundamentally altering ecosystems across the world. In West Africa, these changes are leading to shifts in the distribution of forest and savanna ecosystems, but exactly what changes are occurring and why remains largely unknown.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park (OKNP) in the Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s oldest parks and contains a unique mix of ecosystems and biodiversity, from savanna-forest mosaic through to primary tropical rainforest—part of the second largest expanse of rainforest in the world. It holds thousands of forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, West Africa’s last remaining population of spotted hyenas, and over 100 other mammal species, as well as over 400 species of birds.

However, a combination of climatic change and human pressures could lead to fundamental shifts in OKNP’s ecological communities, potentially leading to the loss of iconic species and unique ecosystems such as bais—elephant-created clearings in the forest.

Responding to these changes requires an in-depth understanding of how ecosystems are changing, and what the consequences of these changes will be for biodiversity, carbon stocks, and people.

This PhD will use remote sensing and long-term monitoring data to understand how different ecosystems in OKNP and across the Republic of Congo are changing in response to climate change and human pressures, and work with OKNP’s management team to identify pathways to conserve biodiversity and carbon while supporting local people. There may be the opportunity for fieldwork in OKNP to develop a closer understanding of the issues, if the student is keen.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Forest elephants in a bai in the Congo rainforest.


By working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Leeds, alongside the management team in OKNP, you will:

  1. Use high-resolution satellite imagery to investigate how the extent and distribution of ecosystems within OKNP have changed over the past decades.
  2. Use long-term climate data to build an understanding of the drivers of these changes within the park.
  3. Use cutting-edge remote sensing tools to understand how these drivers combine with human use and changing fire dynamics to affect ecosystems both within OKNP and across the region. You will focus on the Congo Savanna-Forest Mosaic system, which is thought to be changing particularly rapidly.
  4. Work closely with the OKNP management team to understand how your findings can be applied in the park to maintain or enhance biodiversity, carbon stocks, and the wellbeing of local people.


The project offers a unique opportunity to develop interdisciplinary skills encompassing conservation, biogeography, quantitative ecology, and cross-disciplinary approaches, with specialist training in:

  • Scientific programming for:
    • Processing and visualising large datasets
    • Species distribution modelling
    • Spatial planning and analysis, decision science
  • Creating policy-relevant research and research outputs
  • Planning and carrying out a cutting edge research programme

You will have access to training workshops for technical and professional development skills, will present your research at international scientific conferences, and will benefit from expertise within the Schools of Earth and Environment and Biology; and from being a member of the Sustainability Research Institute, the Priestley International Centre for Climate—globally leading centres for sustainability and climate research—and the Leeds Ecosystem Atmosphere and Forest (LEAF) centre.

In addition to your supervisors, you will receive support from Dr Gwili Gibbon, Head of Research and Monitoring at OKNP, who will ensure that the project remains as relevant as possible to OKNP’s needs, and help to maximise the on-the-ground impact of your findings.

Candidate description

Candidates should have a demonstrated interest in biodiversity conservation (essential), and a strong quantitative background (essential), with experience in spatial analytics and programming in R or Python (desirable). To be competitive for funding, candidates should have an excellent first degree and an MSc in a relevant subject, or similar experience.

We particularly seek candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. If you would like more information on the University of Leeds’ commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, please contact David Williams.


This project will provide the first analysis of how OKNP’s unique and varied ecosystems are responding—and are likely to respond in the future—to anthropogenic climate change and management.