Fighting for Survival - the Niassa Lion & Carnivore Project in Mozambique

Here's a wildlife project run by truly passionate conservationists, who are fighting for the survival of lions and other wild animals in one of the world's last remaining genuine wilderness areas.

Niassa Carnivore Project - Fighting for the Survival of Threatened Wildlife

The Niassa Carnivore Project is working with local communities to try and save wildlife populations, particularly the carnivores, found in this massive gem of a protected area in northern Mozambique. The conservation project was started in 2003 by researchers, Dr Colleen and Keith Begg, who originally came to Niassa to study the honey badger. During their time in Niassa, the Beggs recognized the dire need for wildlife conservation in Niassa and took serious action.

Initially, the Carnivore Project focused on lions and was named the Niassa Lion Project, but today it extends to researching and conserving leopards, wild dogs and spotted hyenas too.

Lions of Niassa Reserve - Why the Niassa Lions Matter

"Niassa National Reserve is an area of critical conservation importance for the lion."

Lions are the flagship species of the conservation efforts in Niassa, as these big cats play a significant ecological, cultural and economic role that benefits the reserve and Mozambique.

Some important facts about the Niassa lions:

  • Niassa is home to about 800 to 1000 lions
  • Hosts one of only five healthy lion populations left in Africa
  • Is one of the ten lion strongholds remaining in Africa
  • Is one of only six areas supporting more than 1000 lions today
  • Niassa is connected to the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, increasing its value as a priority area for lion conservation
  • Niassa is inhabited by almost a third of Mozambique’s total lion population

The fact that Niassa is currently one of six areas supporting more than 1000 lions is of major significance to lion conservation, making it a critical lion stronghold. Genetic population models show that large populations of 50-100 lion prides are required to conserve genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding in lion populations (IUCN red list).

Threats to Niassa Lions - the Problem

In Niassa the main threats to the high-risk lion populations in Niassa are:

  • Inadvertent killing through snares set for bushmeat and poisoning
  • Retaliation in human-lion conflicts to protect livestock and human lives
  • Sport hunting  
  • Intentional snaring for the skin trade (mostly leopards, but impacts lions too)
  • Disease

Niassa's lions and other carnivores are under increasing threat as the national reserve is also home to a growing population of 35 000 people, living in 40 villages located inside the protected area. The conflict between humans and lions, as well as other wildlife, is inevitable in a shared wilderness area, where inhabitants compete for natural resources and survival on a daily basis.

Lion Conservation Solutions in Niassa - Achievements and Actions

Firstly, the Niassa Lion Project established the Niassa Reserve as a priority area for lion conservation.

Broadly speaking the Niassa Lion Project works to mitigate threats to local carnivores and conserve lion, leopard, spotted hyena and African wild dog populations by promoting co-existence between these carnivores and the people living in and around the reserve.

Children in Niassa

Colleen and Keith Begg spearhead the Niassa Lion Project, working with a small local team. The Niassa Lion Project works in collaboration with the Mozambican Management Authority of Niassa, Mecula District Administration and independent tourism operators. Critical to its success, the Niassa Lion Project works with the communities of Niassa, including village leaders and teachers.

Niassa Community Women

The Project has developed and implemented strict regulations for the sports hunting of lions, setting age limits and reducing the deaths of underage lions by 75% since 2006.

The Niassa Lion Project implements sustainable solutions to face conservation challenges by:

  • Targeted monitoring and practical research in the reserve
  • Involving communities through outreach and education programs
  • Taking actions to directly mitigate the threats of human-wildlife conflict
  • Mentoring and training local conservationists

Local scouts in Niassa National Reserve

This project has distributed toolkits that provide local people with practical solutions to the lion-human conflicts in Niassa. The team has also created innovative living fences made of plants (Commiphora Africana), serving to protect livestock from wild predators. The Niassa Project is also helping locals to reduce their dependence on bushmeat (wild animal meat), by finding ways to increase sources of domestic meat and establishing alternative sources of incomes for local hunters.

Donate to the Niassa Carnivore Project, administered under The Ratel Trust.

African Lion Conservation - Why Lions are in Trouble 

The African lion population has shrunk drastically and is currently half of what it was in the early 1950s. Recent counts estimate that as few as 23 000 to 40 000 lions survive today, with the IUCN estimate at 32 000 lions in 67 areas covering about 17% of their historical range (about 25% of savannah Africa). This means a decrease of about 30% in the lion population over the last two decades!

Lions are categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN red data list of species with the main threats being: 

  • Indiscriminate killing (primarily to protect human life and livestock)
  • Prey base depletion (fewer animals to hunt)
  • Habitat loss and land conversion (reducing the size of lion populations and isolating these populations) 

Most East and Southern African countries have the infrastructure for wildlife tourism, which supports a large number of visitors attracted to safari destinations. The Big Five of Africa - lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino - are a huge drawcard, coming out as the top favourite animals to be sighted on safaris. Lions generate significant cash revenue through safari tourism for park management and local communities, providing a strong motivation for wildlife conservation. 

Other Carnivores of Niassa

The Niassa Carnivore Project also works to conserve Niassa's populations of:

  • Wild Dogs - around 336 endangered African Wild Dogs
  • Leopards
  • Spotted Hyenas

Wild Dogs in Niassa Reserve

Why Niassa - What makes this Reserve Special?

Niassa is considered one of the last truly wild places on earth.

This national reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Africa, covering about 42 000 km² (16000 miles²) - more than twice the size of Kruger National Park in South Africa. One of the most undeveloped wilderness areas in Africa, Niassa is about the same size as Wales, Denmark or Massachusetts.

The Niassa National Reserve supports the largest concentration of wildlife left in Mozambique and is a stronghold for both African Lions and African Wild Dogs.

This remote and untamed reserve is located in northern Mozambique along the border with Tanzania. Niassa is connected to Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, Africa’s largest protected area, by the Selous-Niassa Wildlife Corridor a vital link between these protected areas. This important wildlife corridor has the potential to establish one of the largest trans-frontier wildlife areas in Africa, aiding the sustainable conservation of lions, wild dogs and elephants, among other species with wide home ranges.

Read more about Niassa Reserve and the Niassa Carnivore Project.

Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique

Visit the Niassa Lion Project website or join them on the Niassa Lion Project Facebook Page.

Read more about their work and the solutions that the project is offering on the Wildlife Conservation Network.

For stunning images and films about the Niassa Lion Project, the Niassa Reserve, lions, honey badgers and the local communities - visit the Begg Nature website where you can buy images and films in support of conservation.

The Begg team is also working on another film called Spirit Creatures, which is about their "journey as conservationists to understand the complex relationships people have with wildlife in a Mozambican wilderness."

The Spirit Creatures film is hosted on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing website for funding independent projects like this film.

Information Sources: Niassa Lion Project, Wildlife Conservation Network, PR Web, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Houston Zoo and IUCN Red List.

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