Game-rich and scantly populated, the marshes and bushlands of Mozambique have long been one of Africa’s safari secrets. As time goes on in this region of survival and regeneration, the balance of human and animal is challenged, and with the scales threatening to tip dangerously the Niassa Lion Project lends an extra hand to bridge the gap between man and the wild.
Mozambique’s Niassa Game Reserve in the north of the coastal country has only 35,000 permanent residents and more than 70% of Mozambique’s wildlife in its 16,000 square miles – an area twice the size of Massachusetts, whose population is 6.5 million. In colonial times the Portuguese called this region “Fim do Mundo” – the end of the world – due to its isolation and lack of infrastructure. Its remote location meant endemic species thrived for generations, and in the late 1990s the Mozambican government began rehabilitating the reserve after years of neglect and environmentally devastating civil war. Visitors here find a quieter side of Africa, a place miraculously regenerating in an effort to once more be a thriving slice of southeastern Africa.
Winding almost 220 miles through the woodlands of the reserve is the Lugenda River, the lifeblood of Niassa and the focus of much of the wildlife activity. Sheltered on its banks beneath a bounty of fig trees, Lugenda Wilderness Camp hosts visitors in search of the secrets of the reserve. Eight luxurious tents with private balconies peer out over the river, blending perfectly into the spectacular scenery. Though the East African–style tents appear wild and rustic, each is appointed with luxurious amenities, making them feel more like traditional hotel suites in the middle of the wilderness. A dining area, swimming pool, and comprehensive library make up the timber and thatched main camp. On twice-daily game drives, Lugenda’s naturalists navigate the granite inselbergs rising out of the miombo woodlands, each one a different shape and known by a unique local name. The highest of these, Mecula and Jao, are each over half a mile tall. You may see the rare Taita falcon, waterbuck, a pack of African wild dogs, or herds of buffalo 200 strong. By night you will often hear a lion roaring, the whoop of a far-off hyena, or the low boom of a Pel’s fishing owl.
The Lugenda River offers a watery safari of hippo, elephant, crocodile, and on occasion even a lion basking on the sand bar. There is the usual show of African fish eagles, palm nut vultures, kingfishers, and other water birds. Local fishermen are often spotted in their dugout canoes, fishing and smoking their catch on small ovens on the river’s islands. The banks of the Lugenda are also home to the bamboo-fenced field base of Dr. Colleen and Keith Begg, founders of the Niassa Lion Project and champions for conservation in the region. Colleen and Keith spend most of the year in the reserve with their two young children and a small team of local Mozambicans, finding practical ways to protect lions, African wild dogs, leopards, and spotted hyenas in Niassa. “We started off as researchers, but as we went along we realized we might just end up documenting the demise of species without doing anything about it,” Keith says. After completing an area carnivore survey in 2003, they discovered the very real and growing threats to lions and other carnivores in the reserve, and the Niassa Lion Project was born.
With only 23,000 to 40,000 remaining, the African lion population is half of what it was in the early 1950s, and Niassa is home to one of only five lion populations left in Africa. The costs to communities living with lions and other wildlife can be significant through the loss of life, livelihoods, and livestock. But people pose serious threats to the lions, including retaliatory killing as a result of human-lion conflict, indiscriminate snaring, and the risk of rabies and canine distemper spread by domestic dogs. Working hand in hand with communities, the Mozambican government, and tourism partners, the Niassa Lion Project uses a holistic approach to find ways for man and beast to thrive in their coexistence.
In partnership with the Houston Zoo every November, the Niassa Lion Project hosts the Lion Conservation Fun Days for the children in Mbamba village. The children paint animal masks, run relay races, act out plays, and engage in many other activities designed to illustrate the importance of carnivores in their ecosystem. The Beggs’ hope to expand their efforts by developing an environmental conservation center that will provide bush visits for children and training in sustainable livelihoods for the entire community.
Niassa is as much about its people as it is about its wildlife, and in 2006 a radio-collared lion helped reveal just how deep the roots of man go in the region. The lion was lounging under a rocky overhang, watched from a distance by the Beggs. “For hours we had been staring at him and this rock through our cameras and binoculars,” Colleen recalls. “The more we looked, the more the markings on the rock behind the lion looked too regular to be wasp nests or lichen.” When the lion moved on and the Beggs rushed to inspect the rock, they discovered paintings that experts later confirmed were Batwa Pygmy geometric rock paintings, perhaps 4,000 years old.
From the prehistoric to the colonial and post–civil war times, the culture of Mozambique takes center stage in Ker & Downey’s Untouched Africa: Conservation and Culture journey. Split your time in Mozambique’s paradise between the wilderness of Niassa and the idyllic beaches of Matemo Island, soaking up the sun and the intriguing history of the country’s island communities. Among them is Ibo Island, where Portuguese culture meshes with that of the Kimwani people, who still maintain a traditional life on the island. Here the silversmith trade is passed down from father to son, and the women still wear the “Ibo face mask” – a painted face that indicates purity and beauty. Theirs is a culture that persists in the face of modernization, just like the wildlife here has persisted and rebounded, but still has a long way to go to reach levels of prosperity once enjoyed. The Beggs too remain steadfast, continuing to preserve the fragile landscape and the wildlife within it in the hope that future Mozambicans will follow suit.
We gratefully thank the contributors to this article:
Wildlife researchers Dr. Colleen and Keith Begg share a passion to protect the imperiled wildlife of their native Africa. Following years of shared conservation projects in several countries, they founded the Niassa Lion Project in Mozambique in 2003. The Beggs spend most of the year in the Niassa National Reserve, raising conservation awareness in one of the most undeveloped wild places on the continent. Peter Riger is the Vice-President of Conservation for the Houston Zoo Wildlife Conservation Program, a multi-disciplinary effort that partners with and supports nearly two dozen programs around the world.