“We have a lot of ideas for the future“

Heribert Hofer, zoologist and designated GDNÄ President, on his plans for the next few years, wildlife research in Africa and conservation based on science.

Professor Hofer, you have been Vice President of the GDNÄ since the beginning of 2021. What does this task mean to you?
Very much. I have been associated with the GDNÄ for many years – most recently as Chair of the Biology Group. I feel honoured that I can now be even more involved with the oldest and largest interdisciplinary scientific society in Germany. To this day, the GDNÄ is of great importance in our scientific system: this is where leading researchers come together to discuss issues across disciplinary boundaries and involve the public in the process. That is unique and I admire the GDNÄ for that.

What priorities would you like to set as Vice-President?
Promoting the young generation is very close to my heart. One example of this is the Science Slams for students, which I initiated and moderated at the last assemblies in Greifswald and Saarbrücken. I think the young people had great fun and the older ones enjoyed watching it. In the coming years, I would like to help further expand the wonderful student programme of the GDNÄ and anchor it nationwide. One idea is to recruit experienced scientists as mentors: They could individually supervise our young talents and accompany them in the longer term. The student programme should become a central institution of the GDNÄ – that is my vision for the future.

From the Landrover, Heribert Hofer observes predator behaviour.

Today you are an internationally recognised wildlife researcher and institute director. Who supported you at the beginning of your path? What shaped you?
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were no such great programmes. I was mainly influenced by individual teachers in the mathematical and scientific fields and, very importantly, by certain books.   What I remember well is the book “Prinzip Eigennutz” by the German behavioural scientist Wolfgang Wickler. It was published in 1977, one year after Richard Dawkins´ book on the selfish gene. My godfather had given me Wickler’s work as a gift and I really devoured it. The Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge by the physicist and philosopher Gerhard Vollmer was also very important. I read his books with enthusiasm when I was still at school, although I can’t remember how I came across them.  What controls behaviour? According to which rules does social cohesion function? How accurate is the perception of reality? These are questions that have been driving me ever since.

You could have become a social scientist with that.
But then I wouldn’t have been able to deal with predators (laughs). Predators are very intelligent creatures and observing their behaviour in the field and drawing conclusions from it is incredibly fascinating.

You have been observing spotted hyenas in the East African savannah for many years. Why spotted hyenas of all creatures?
These predators have a very complex social behaviour and live in female-dominated groups. This means that their behaviour is almost a mirror image of the male dominance common in mammals. In 1986, I travelled to the Serengeti for the first time in order to study this special feature more closely. This is a Tanzanian national park the size of Schleswig-Holstein, where more than a million wildebeests, hundreds of thousands of zebras and thousands upon thousands of buffaloes, lions, hyenas and other large mammals live – more concentrated than anywhere else in the world. In the middle of the Serengeti, in the valley of the Seronera River, there is an international research institute with accommodation for scientists. We have rented and renovated two houses there and I have been staying there regularly for study purposes for 33 years, often together with my wife, the behavioural ecologist Marion East, and team members.

Three male cheetahs resting in the Serengeti.

How can we imagine researcher life there?
It is a simple life. We live in quite simple huts scattered around the institute. We get our electricity from photovoltaic systems, and the water comes from large tanks that collect rainwater from the roof. Those with manual skills are at an advantage: there is always something to repair – in the hut, on the scientific equipment or on the Landrover. Scientists from all over the world live in the research institute, three quarters of them are women. There is little socialising, because everyone is fully occupied with their own projects. We, for example, always leave our quarters very early and stay out late to watch the hyenas in the centre of the Serengeti. The best times for this are between half past six and half past nine in the morning and between half past four and eight in the evening – so around sunrise and sunset.

These are long-term projects: How big is your data treasure in the meantime?
We now know the complete individual life histories of a good 2500 hyenas over several generations. For this we can stay in our study area, because the group territories are passed on from the mother’s generation to the daughter’s generation.  Our staff also study hyenas in the Ngorongoro Crater, a second study area located in the south-west of the Serengeti – and they have been doing so for almost twenty-five years.

What have you found out so far about the social behaviour of spotted hyenas?
A central question from the beginning was how the pronounced female dominance comes about, what advantage it has and how it could have arisen. At the top of the pack is an alpha female, followed by other females in a strict hierarchy, and all male clan members are below the lowest-ranking female. This is not due to hormonal differences, as is still erroneously claimed in textbooks today. Rather, we were able to show that female dominance in spotted hyenas is a learned behaviour and ultimately based on a pseudo-voluntary self-submission of the males. They have no other choice because females regularly dominate them due to female coalitions. Also, males only stand a chance in mating if they have succeeded in establishing a friendly relationship with a female.

So social competence is a real advantage?
That is definitely the case. In addition, young females in particular are mainly interested in males of their own clan that have recently joined the pack or were born later than they were. Therefore, clever males choose the group in the environment that has the most young females and migrate.  This also very successfully avoids incest incest, which could be a problem in a group structure where the young females neither know their older brothers nor their father. We were able to find convincing evidence for this in our long-term study in the Ngorongoro Crater. 

You have been the director of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in East Berlin since 2000. It’s probably not that easy to do your own research there.
That’s true, but doing my own research was always important to me. Unfortunately, I can no longer spend months in the Serengeti as I did at the beginning of my career. But I still manage three or four weeks of field studies a year.

Science-based conservation plays a major role at your institute. What exactly do you mean by this?
A good example is the solution a team from my institute found for the conflict between cattle farmers and cheetahs in Namibia. In December 2020 we reported on it in the scientific journal PNAS. In central Namibia, several hundred individuals of the rare big cat species live freely on the lands of cattle farmers. Occasionally, the cheetahs kill cattle calves, which has led to considerable conflict. We then sat down with the cattle farmers, took on board their suggestions and questions, and together devised a research strategy. Together we then managed to fit 250 cheetahs with radio transmitters to record their movement behaviour and use of space. It turned out that there are particularly dangerous places for calves – namely where cheetahs from the region regularly meet to exchange information or find mating partners.

Group photo in the green: the staff of the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research on the meadow in front of the research building in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde.

In media reports, the meeting places were compared to trendy clubs in big cities.
Yes, you could also say that. We prefer to speak of communication centres. If the farmers knew which areas these were – we could tell them exactly if we had a transmitter-equipped cheetah on their farm – and when they then moved their herds elsewhere during calving season, losses dropped by more than 80 per cent. This great success was only possible through the trusting cooperation between scientists and farmers. We see our part in collecting questions together with the people concerned and finding scientifically based answers to them. This is the approach we are currently using in Germany to try to find a solution to the dispute about wolf repopulation.

What are the chances?
The outcome is open. Compared to Germany, Namibia has the advantage that the problems are honestly addressed and taken seriously both by the government and by the people concerned. That is not yet the case in Germany. In Germany, the wolf is rightfully a protected species, but on the other hand, the interests of the rural population are not sufficiently taken into account by parliamentarians and ministries. Therefore, especially the sheep farmers, who have very fragile economic livelihoods and simply cannot afford elaborate protection measures, are very upset. This is the field of conflict in which we operate.

Your institute is already active on many continents and conducts research on an astonishing range of topics.  Can that still be topped?
I think so. We certainly have a lot of ideas for the future. In the next few years, for example, we want to make greater use of the potential of modern remote sensing. Together with the German Aerospace Centre, we are currently developing methods to track endangered species by satellite and observe them in near-real time. Up to now, populations have been recorded with great technical and temporal effort. Relevant information often arrives much too late. Satellites could also be used to better observe animal migrations over large areas, for example in the Serengeti savannah. In another project, we want to equip vultures with intelligent radio transmitters to track down the carcasses of elephants that have fallen victim to poachers. The information, properly processed with artificial intelligence, could then be passed on to patrols and law enforcement agencies virtually in real time. The latest molecular biology methods, machine learning and artificial intelligence: as soon as we can use all of these together, we will be fit for the future – with modern, evidence-based nature and species conservation.

Saarbrücken 2018 © Robertus Koppies

Prof. Dr. Heribert Hofer, Director of the Leibniz-Instituts für Zoo- und Wildtierforschung

About the person 

Prof. Dr Heribert Hofer (60) has headed the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde since 2000. Until 2017, he was also head of the Department of Evolutionary Ecology at his institute. Since 2000, Hofer has held a professorship for Interdisciplinary Zoo and Wildlife Research at the Free University of Berlin. Before his time in Berlin, he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen, Bavaria, from 1986 to 1999 – first as a postdoctoral researcher, later as an independent scientist. In 1997, he habilitated at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich with a thesis on the behaviour of spotted hyenas in the Serengeti savannah.  Heribert Hofer began his studies in zoology at Saarland University and completed them at Oxford University with a doctorate in “DPhil”.

The internationally renowned scientist is closely associated with the GDNÄ. He has been involved in many ways for many years: as an elected subject representative and group chair for the subject of biology, and as a session chair and speaker at meetings, for example in 2014 in Mainz, 2016 in Greifswald and 2018 in Saarbrücken. In addition to science communication with the public, Heribert Hofer is particularly keen on promoting young talent as part of the GDNÄ student programme. In November 2020, Professor Hofer was elected as the new Vice President by the General Assembly; he has held the honorary position since the beginning of 2021. As Vice President, Hofer is also the designated President of the GDNÄ. He will take up this office in 2023. 

Hyänen-Zwillingspärchen © Marion L. East und Heribert Hofer

Fates of the Serengeti: The picture shows two young hyena twins who grew up together and whose lives Heribert Hofer and Marion East documented as comprehensively as possible in a long-term project. On the left is a dominant sister with her subdominant brother; their mother has the lowest rank in the hyena pack at this point. Both are slightly smaller than the twins to their right, who are descended from the highest-ranking female in the group. The dominant sister (2nd from right) here is slightly larger than her sub-dominant brother. Both litters are the same age, but the cubs of the high-ranking mothers received more milk per day than the cubs of the low-ranking mothers – hence the size differences. Both females shown here stayed in their natal group all their lives; both brothers migrated to other groups not studied.

Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research 

Founded in 1992, Leibniz-IZW has rapidly developed into an internationally recognised research institute. It belongs to the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V. and is a member of the Leibniz Association. The declared goal is to understand the adaptability of wildlife in the context of global change and to contribute to the preservation of healthy wildlife populations.

More than 200 people work at the IZW, including around 50 scientists. The research projects on a wide range of topics are mainly based in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. The spectrum ranges from studies on wildlife in the city and the threat posed to bats by wind farms to the reproduction of grotto olms and the conservation of the northern white rhinoceros.

Citizen research is a priority at the IZW. Most recently, the Institute invited citizens in Berlin and Brandenburg to observe squirrels and document their findings for new research projects.

Further information: www.izw-berlin.de

One of the last Sumatran rhinos from the Malaysian state of Sabah. There, IZW researchers have been investigating the reasons for the drastic decline of this species since 2009.

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