Knowledge for a sustainable world


Professor Robert Cheke joined the Centre for Overseas Pest Research, one of the Natural Resources Institute's predecessor scientific units, as a senior scientific officer in September 1976 and was promoted to principal scientific officer (G7/PS2) in 1990. He was appointed Professor of Tropical Zoology in 1997. Previous posts included:

  • 1966: Research assistant, British Trust for Ornithology, Tring, Hertfordshire
  • 1973–75: Lecturer II in environmental sciences, Plymouth Polytechnic
  • 1975–76: Course tutor for the Open University course on systems behaviour and research associate in entomology at the Department of Zoology, University of Sheffield.

Since 2010, Professor Cheke has been a visiting professor at the Department for Infectious Disease Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at Imperial College London (

Professor Cheke's research interests concern understanding the functioning of ecological systems. Most of his research concerns tropical environments in Africa, involving the biology and control of vector-borne diseases and agricultural pests, often including mathematical modelling. As an ornithologist and entomologist, Professor Cheke specialises in vectors of onchocerciasis ('river blindness') on migrant agricultural pests such as locusts, armyworm moths and red-billed quelea birds, and on mathematical models of integrated pest management. His research has involved fieldwork in numerous countries in western, eastern and southern Africa.

His major achievements include:
  • Contributions to the success of the World Health Organization's Onchocerciasis Control Programme (OCP) in West Africa (1979–90), which treated vector breeding sites with insecticides from 1974 to 2002. This programme helped protect some 40 million people in 11 countries (see WHO, 2002. Success in Africa: The Onchocerciasis Control Programme in West Africa 1974–2002. WHO, Geneva), and also prevented some 600,000 cases of blindness
  • Work with the WHO African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), which led to the successful elimination of onchocerciasis vectors from the island of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea, in 2005, thereby protecting about 70,000 people from contracting the disease in perpetuity (Cheke et al. 2009; Traoré, S. et al. 2009).
  • Research with Ghanaian collaborators on effects of climate change on Onchocerciasis sponsored by IDRC led to production of the film 'Living with the Fly':

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Professor Cheke has investigated potential effects of anthropogenic climate change on the animals that he studies and, having looked at how changes in rainfall patterns could affect desert locusts (Tratalos et al. 2010) and brown locusts (Todd et al. 2002), he has also conducted research on climate change effects on onchocerciasis vectors in collaboration with Professor M.G. Basáñez of Imperial College London (Cheke et al. 2015). Together with collaborators in China, he has been concerned with modelling how to control dengue virus vectors by introducing Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes (Zhang et al 2016, Wang et al. 2016), locust phase changes (Cheke et al. 2013,Yuan et al. 2015) and general aspects of integrated pest management modelling (Liang et al. 2013).

Professor Cheke has published 250 articles on biological topics, two books (Cheke, R.A. and Walsh, J.F. (1996) The Birds of Togo. British Ornithologists' Union Check-list no. 14. British Ornithologists' Union, Tring; and Cheke, R.A. and Mann, C.F. (2001) Sunbirds. A Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters and Sugarbirds of the World. Christopher Helm, A&C Black, London). He has edited three sets of conference proceedings, one of which was for a Royal Society discussion meeting in 1989.

Professor Cheke devised the NRI MSc programme in natural resources and managed it as programme leader in its initial years, He has supervised more than 20 PhD students.

In an increasingly populous and warming world, it is imperative to maximise crop production and minimise health risks, whilst simultaneously protecting natural environments. To achieve these goals it is necessary to understand how living systems function in order to decide which of a suite of possible interventions are best. However, the inherent complexity of living systems requires a systems approach to cope with counterintuitive phenomena and to predict how biological systems will respond to different stresses. Hence the need for quantitative analyses of field data and modelling, both theoretical and empirical.

These approaches, which have underpinned much of Professor Cheke's research, have led to successes in control programmes against human parasitic diseases and migrant pests and have shown that integrated pest management (IPM) is preferable to conventional pest management on both economic and environmental grounds.

Future work is needed to link more field data on pests and disease vectors, which are currently controlled using IPM methods, with mathematical models to devise the most appropriate control strategies. It is anticipated that progress towards these aims will be made in a new project, awarded to Professor Cheke's collaborator, Professor S. Tang of the Shaanxi Normal University, Xi'an, Peoples' Republic of China, to begin in 2013 on Mathematical Modelling for Integrated Pest Management and Resistance Management for BT Crops, funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NNSFC).

Current Projects

2009–14: Co-PI of project Density-dependent host choice by onchocerciasis vectors. Wellcome Trust award to Professor M.G. Basáñez of Imperial College London. Value: £382,000.

This project investigated, using molecular ecology and mathematical modelling, whether the proportion of blood-meals taken on humans by vectors (the human blood index or HBI) depends on vector and host density. Current models of vector-borne diseases (VBDs) assume that the value of the HBI is fixed in a particular environment and therefore predict that the case reproduction number (Ro) of these infections varies linearly with vector abundance. A non-linear relationship would imply that efforts to control VBDs by anti-vectorial measures could have unforeseen effects on the ability of the parasite to invade and persist in host populations.

Fieldwork was conducted at seven sites in Ghana using baited and unbaited trapping methods to catch adult blackflies. Different cytospecies were identified morphologically and by DNA methods and any residual blood-meals in parous flies were identified by DNA analyses. The flies were found to be biting a variety of hosts, in addition to man, such as cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and dogs. The data are being analysed with a view to re-parameterising existing models of onchocerciasis transmission. All cytotaxonomic identifications of larvae for Ghana collected during a 40-year period, including for new samples obtained by the project, were analysed with regard to changes in the distribution and abundance of the various cytoforms recorded (Post et al. 2013).

2010–14: Co-PI of project Transmission, control and feasibility of elimination of human onchocerciasis in Ghana. Royal Society/Leverhulme Trust Capacity Building Africa award to Professor M.G. Basáñez of Imperial College London. Value: £50,000.

The project involved both capacity building by running three formal training courses on aspects of Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) and supervision of the research of four PhD students. The research component has evaluated the current epidemiological situation and feasibility of onchocerciasis elimination, aiming to:

  • Identify transmission hotspots by mapping spatio-temporal variation in onchocerciasis according to history of control interventions (vector control and ivermectin distribution)
  • Conduct ivermectin treatment coverage surveys in villages with persisting transmission, suboptimal and normal responses to the drug
  • Carry out epidemiological, parasitological and transmission surveys in selected villages and
  • Develop and calibrate onchocerciasis mathematical models with which to explore the feasibility of its elimination. Results are currently being analysed.

Recently Completed Project

2006–09: PI of project Environmental and human health impact assessment of quelea bird control in southern Africa and novel means of harvesting quelea birds for protein and income generation. SADC/ICART/CRARF 9th European Development Fund project. Value: EUR497,180.

The aim of this research project was to seek more environmentally benign means of controlling red-billed quelea birds, Quelea quelea, a major pest of small-grain cereals in southern Africa which particularly affects farmers in Botswana and Tanzania.

The main activities were assessments of the environmental and human health impacts of controlling the birds' roosts and breeding colonies by avicides, explosives, mass trapping and harvesting. The effects of these different control methods on non-target fauna and on the health of farmers and control workers were assessed by residue analyses, assays of acetylcholinesterase depression and pesticide levels in blood samples. Particular attention was paid to refining means of using harvested quelea birds for protein and income generation, as well as capacity building of national agricultural services.

The occurrence of unacceptably high levels of the organophosphate pesticides fenthion and cyanophos in soil after sprays and of petroleum products and phthalates after explosions were confirmed and quantified (Cheke et al., 2013). Both acetylcholinesterase and butyrylcholinesterase levels in the blood of birds were depressed after sprays in surviving target and non-target birds and, contrary to results of previous studies, acetylcholinesterase was found to be present in avian erythrocytes (Cheke et al., 2012).

  • Associate Member, Royal Society of Medicine
  • Member, Society of Biology and Chartered Biologist
  • Fellow, Linnean Society of London
  • Fellow, Royal Entomological Society
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene
  • Fellow, Higher Education Academy
  • Member, British Ecological Society
  • Member, British Society for Parasitology
  • Member, British Ornithologists' Union (Member of Meetings Committee 1993–2005; Editor of Checklist series of books 2005–09)
  • Member, British Ornithologists' Club (Committee Member 1991–95 and 2001–05); Chairman Publications Committee 1994–96; Member Publications Committee 1996–99 and 2001–02; Publications Officer 2004–09)
  • Member, British Trust for Ornithology (Holder of Grade A Bird Ringing licence)
  • Member, West African Ornithological Society (Regular Member, Editorial Board of Malimbus)
  • Member, Editorial Board of Ecological Modelling, the journal of the International Society for Ecological Modelling, 1995–2003
  • Member, WHO Scientific Working Group on Insect Disease Vectors and Human Health, 2002
  • External member of appointments panel for population biologists 'Concourse de Chargé de Recherche CR2 3' for the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), June 2012.
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