Linking Livelihoods to Lion Conservation

by Rebecca Patton | June 25th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Bill Chameides is on vacation. He will be back in July.

In December Bill wrote a blog post on the increasingly challenging conditions lions face in Africa. The supporting research was conducted by Nicholas School grad Jason Riggio and colleagues and was published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Using a large dataset and high-resolution satellite imagery, they showed that the prime habitat for lions — the savanna (tropical and subtropical grasslands with scattered trees) — is highly fragmented due to increasing human presence. Consequently, only about 25 percent of it is suitable for lions. And as a result, the lion population is down to 32,000-35,000, about half of what it was in the 1950s.

Aerial view of Niassa

Aerial view of Niassa, a national reserve in northern Mozambique that is home to a significant lion population. With an estimated 1,000-1,200 lions living there, the reserve is one of only 10 places in Africa with more than 500.

The research highlighted 10 lion strongholds in Africa that still have the potential to support lions for the long term. One of these is the Niassa National Reserve in northern Mozambique, one of the most wild, undeveloped places remaining in Africa.

Visiting the Magical Land of Mozambique

Mozambique Map

The Niassa National Reserve (orange) is located in northern Mozambique in Africa. (Click on map for larger image.)

In May I had the opportunity to visit the Niassa Lion Project, as part of my work with the Wildlife Conservation Network, a nonprofit organization that partners with some of the best independent conservationists around the world working on endangered species conservation.

The lion project is led by Colleen and Keith Begg, a remarkable couple who have dedicated their lives to ensuring Niassa remains a stronghold for lions … along with the rest of the remarkable wildlife there.

Elephant at dusk

Elephant at dusk in Niassa.

The Niassa Reserve is very large — roughly the size of Switzerland — and very remote. From Pemba on the east coast (see map above), where we flew in commercially, you either hire a charter plane or travel nine hours by Land Rover or the equivalent, six of those hours through the bush on dirt roads. The vastness is hard to describe. It also is very beautiful, with meandering rivers and “inselbergs” (the term for isolated mountains).

Beehive fence to protect crops

Beehive fences are a low-tech but effective tool being employed to keep elephants out of villagers’ croplands (elephants are afraid of bees), increasing food security.

This doesn’t mean that there are no people in Niassa, however. While it is a protected area, more than 35,000 people are scattered among some 42 villages [pdf] in this vast region, and the population is growing.

Conservation Challenge: A Growing Human Population

And this is where the challenging conservation work comes in. The people are poor and live off the land, since there are few employment opportunities. There is sport hunting in the reserve, but it is highly regulated. And it turns out that snaring animals for bushmeat actually causes four times as many lion deaths as sport hunting. So, while villagers are targeting antelope, impala, and the like for food, threatened species not intended for food (such as lions, leopards and painted dogs) also get caught in the snares.

learning brickmaking skills

At the heart of the Niassa Lion Project’s approach is linking livelihoods to conservation. Here, a brick-making team from the village demonstrates skills.

Developing an innovative Conservation Toolkit

As Colleen told me, “Hungry people can’t care about conservation.” So finding ways that the local communities see economic benefits from conservation is at the heart of Niassa Lion Project’s approach: specifically, providing employment opportunities and skills training is one of the most valuable incentives the project can offer.

The project team employs scout teams (with members chosen by the village chiefs) who look for poachers and snares; they provide construction jobs — such as brick-making and thatching — for the new environment center, which in turn will support ongoing skills-training opportunities (e.g., they train locals to become mechanics that keep the Land Rovers running, and so on).

The hope is that ecotourism will become more significant over time as well. At present, the Niassa Lion Project employs 70 people in the local village. (Read about the team.)

The project also gives 1 percent of its revenues to the village each year for a community project to help make the point that conservation is good for the local economy.

In addition, the project team is working with the communities on alternative protein sources (we saw the early stages of an experiment with rabbits while we were there) and improving agricultural practices. The long-term vision is for their model to be scaled up to other parts of Niassa.


A male lion in the Niassa National Reserve.

I was incredibly inspired by their commitment, the clarity of their vision and their pragmatism. As challenging as their approach is, it was clear to me that it is the only model that will work in the long term to secure Niassa and its amazing wildlife. And, while more difficult in Niassa, given its poverty and remoteness, integrating communities into conservation is the way forward in almost every significant conservation project I know of in other parts of the world as well.


Rebecca Patton is on the Nicholas School’s Board of Visitors. She also is the chief operating officer of the Wildlife Conservation Network, which partners with world-class conservationists around the globe to protect endangered species and their habitats and provide them with access to the capital and tools they need to develop solutions for human-wildlife coexistence. Previously she was a regional director for The Nature Conservancy.


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