Greetings fellow Nic Schoolers!
I am writing this from the University of Pretoria in South Africa and am joined by your classmates Jason Riggio, Lisanne Petracca, Megan Cattau, and Andrew Jacobson. We are in Pretoria preparing for three weeks of field research in the Tete Province of Mozambique, where we will survey for lions and assess human/lion conflict north of Lake Cahora Bossa. The Tete Province is a region roughly 10,000 km2 in area in northwestern Mozambique. It is bordered by Malawi to the northeast, Zambia to the north and west, Zimbabwe to the southwest and the Zambezi River and Lake Cahora Bossa divide it through the middle. Several Mozambican villages span east to west, but much of the landscape is rocky and inaccessible.
The Tete Province is adjacent to several protected areas, most notably the Lower Zambezi National Park. Locals report lion incidents, but reports are few and contradictory. No one is sure whether the lions are a resident population or simply migrants from the surrounding protected areas. It is our job to fill in these gaps of knowledge for lion and lion prey and assess the amount, locations and type of human/lion conflict. We will also collect data on lion density, but this aspect will be limited by time constraints. However, one question remains: How did the five of us get here?
For the past year, we have been part of a larger research collective collecting data and creating maps for the Big Cats Initiative. The Big Cats Initiative, or BCI, is National Geographic’s most recent multi-year initiative aimed at curbing the precipitous decline of big cat species in the wild. BCI has focused on lions (Panthera leo) in its first year, funding programs that investigate genetic issues, prevent poaching, test new technology, compensate farmers/ranchers to prevent retaliatory killings, and survey lion populations throughout Africa. Our research falls into that last category.
Researching under Dr. Stuart Pimm and Dr. Luke Dollar, BCI’s Program Coordinator, fourteen Nicholas School students and I have compiled the most recent data concerning known populations of lions and mapped their distribution. Lions have been extirpated throughout northern Africa and the Middle East. Their populations have plummeted in western Africa and become small and fragmented. There are a few hundred Asiatic lions, a subspecies of the African lion, in the Gir Forest in India, but that is the sole extant Asian population. The majority of lions are in eastern Africa in Tanzania and Kenya, but this has led to heightened human/lion conflicts that result in lion poisoning and hunting. Lions in southern Africa are primarily contained within protected areas, but human settlements have encroached into park boundaries. These are varied and complicated issues, and BCI is funding programs that investigate possible solutions.
After mapping lion distribution and pinpointing critical regions for conservation, we identified the Tete Province in Mozambique and the northern shores of Lake Kariba in Zambia as areas with potentially high conservation values and large gaps of knowledge. Since conservation cannot be achieved without adequate baseline knowledge, we wrote a grant proposal to National Geographic to survey these two locations. Dr. Rudi van Aarde, one of Dr. Pimm’s colleagues at the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) at the University of Pretoria, agreed to serve as Principal Investigator for the project. We submitted the grant proposal in late February after two months of intense grant writing. We discovered in April that our proposal would be funded and that we would be traveling to Africa to survey lions!
Once National Geographic awarded us the grant, we needed to obtain research permits and visas for our study sites in Zambia and Mozambique. Thankfully, our colleagues at CERU undertook this process. CERU has ongoing research in Mozambique and has gained a high level of trust, so Mozambique permitted our project. However, we were unable to obtain a research permit for Zambia. While our original grant proposal was for two study areas, we ultimately could only survey the one research site in Tete Province, Mozambique. Finally, July 17, our day of departure arrived. Megan and I flew to Atlanta together and met Andrew. The three of us sat together on our 16-hour flight to Johannesburg, went through customs, and boarded another flight to Cape Town. The entire day of travel consisted of 21 hours in the air and 26 hours altogether, along with a 6-hour time zone difference. Jay and Lisanne joined us the following day in Cape Town for what truly became the most adventurous week of my life. The surrounding Cape Town area is the ultimate dream for outdoors and wildlife enthusiasts, and our week there will be chronicled in the following blog.