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.
Dr. Colleen Begg was born in South Africa, where she pursued a career in conservation biology. She researched population viability of cheetahs for her masters thesis and the social organization of the honey badger for her doctorate. She worked in Alaska on musk deer conservation, in Utah on the effects of forest fragmentation on the American pine marten, and in Colorado with big horn sheep, before returning to Africa in 1996, where she joined Keith in completing the first intensive, four-year field study ever done of the elusive honey badger in the Kalahari.
Keith Begg was born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa, where as a teenager he became fascinated with the honey badger. After obtaining a National Diploma in Nature Conservation, he spent years developing creative and successful solutions to mitigate the conflict between honey badgers and the human beekeepers whose hives badgers would raid. Keith is also an exceptional wildlife photographer and cameraman whose National Geographic documentaries have received widespread acclaim.
Together the Beggs have authored many technical and popular articles on their conservation work and bush adventures, contributing to carnivore conservation worldwide while helping to raise environmental consciousness on the local level.
Lions once roamed freely across most parts of Africa. Having already disappeared from northern Africa, they are now found only in parts of southern and eastern Africa and in the southern part of the Sahara desert. With only 23,000-40,000 lions remaining, the African lion population is half of what it was in the early 1950s. Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve is home to one of only five healthy lion populations left on the continent.
Niassa National Reserve is located in northern Mozambique on the border with Tanzania. It is one of the largest protected areas in Africa (42,000 km²) and is considered to be one of the “Last of the Wild” and most undeveloped places in Africa. Time is running out to sustainably conserve the Niassa lions, as well as the Reserve’s significant populations of leopard, spotted hyena and African wild dog.
The conservation of lions in particular touches on many of the major ecological and social challenges facing Niassa National Reserve at present. The Reserve is home to a growing human population of 30,000 residents in forty villages on the verge of modern development. The costs to communities living with lions and large carnivores are significant through the loss of life, livelihoods and livestock.
Similarly, people pose serious threats to the lions, including retaliatory killing as a result of human-lion conflict, indiscriminate snaring, sport hunting of underage individuals, and disease risks, particularly rabies and canine distemper spread from domestic dogs. Roads, not yet extensive, are already resulting in road kill. The Niassa Lion Project is working within this critical window of opportunity to develop innovative, community-based solutions to address this multitude of threats.
The Niassa Lion Project (NLP) views community participation as an essential element of long-term protection for the African lion and the many other imperiled species within its critical habitat. NLP is deeply engaged with local residents, the management authority of the Niassa National Reserve, schools, tourism operators, and the bordering nation of Tanzania in its spectrum of conservation, scientific, and educational activities.
Targeted Pragmatic Research
NLP conducts an ongoing program of pragmatic research targeted at developing ways to assess and mitigate threats to long-term survival of lions and associated wildlife species. Efforts are underway to obtain accurate data on lion fatalities due to snaring and retaliatory killings (presently estimated at approximately forty individuals annually, or 4%-5% of the Niassa lion population each year).
GPS radio-collaring is employed to monitor lion movements, particularly around villages, to learn where and why they are entering and thereby how to discourage that behavior. NLP investigates all reports of lion attacks to help in developing risk-reduction strategies for the protection of both people and lions. The Project assesses the effectiveness of fencing and other measures taken to reduce conflict between lions and people in villages and fields. Blood samples of lions are taken and analyzed for indicators of disease and health.
Education and Outreach
Environmental education and community outreach are aspects of all NLP programs, from field research in which villagers participate to trainings on how to minimize conflict between local residents and lions. Emphasis on understanding the cultural role that lions play in the communities and reaffirming their cultural importance is considered vital. More targeted outreach includes the production of newsletters and reports sent to all stakeholders, from schools to the Mozambique Ministry of Tourism.
Studies conducted by NLP show that village children currently have a limited view of lions as either a threat or source of skins. To help the upcoming generation gain understanding and appreciation of the ecological, economic, and cultural importance of its native carnivores, NLP is collaborating with Afra Kingdon, the noted children’s book writer and conservation educator, to produce and distribute a Niassa Conservation Storybook. This complementary teaching aid will be distributed to all forty schools within the Reserve. A companion Niassa Conservation Activity Book will be part of the curriculum used in teacher training workshops, which NLP is conducting within each school district.
Capulanas are traditional cloths with multiple functions in Mozambican rural society. Displaying meaningful colored designs, they constitute important fashion statements which may be worn by women as skirts or used to carry babies. NLP is making available a multi-purpose educational capulana communicating a conservation message which may be used in the home, hung in classrooms as wall charts, or made into cloth books for children.
Community Scout Monitoring Program
The Community Scout Monitoring Program bridges the research, community participation, and educational elements of NLP’s programming. Community Scouts are local residents recommended by village elders and trained by NLP to utilize a graphic, paper-based monitoring system first employed in Namibia in 2006 for wildlife data collection through systematic observation. An important avenue of community involvement in natural resources management, there are now a dozen trained Scouts representing as many villages, with plans to have thirty-three Scouts representing 80% of the Niassa Natural Reserve villages fully trained and working by 2012.
Risk-Reduction Measures to Minimize Human-Lion Conflict
NLP develops and shares measures to minimize conflict between lions and local community members. One solution is the “living fence” (close plantings of the small tree, Commphora afgricana) to keep warthogs and bush pigs from farmers’ fields. As lions tend to approach fields only when in pursuit of these prey species, the living fences keep lions away as well. Targeted field research, particularly GPS monitoring of lion movements, provides the data to develop new and effective approaches which NLP teaches in human-lion conflict avoidance workshops.
Rabies and distemper within the domestic dog populations in Reserve villages constitute another threat to the health of the free-ranging lion population, as well as to local residents. NLP is engaged in a program of vaccination and registration of over 350 domestic dogs. NLP is also working on zoning to restrict the spread of domestic dogs to new areas and “rabies awareness” programs to help protect people from catching the disease.
Support for Reserve Staff
Providing support to the staff of the Society for the Development and Management of the Niassa Reserve (the management authority of the Niassa National Reserve) is an important part of NLP’s approach to lion and large carnivore conservation. NLP has assisted Reserve management with staff training and with obtaining equipment needed to monitor and deter poaching. NLP was a key participant in the workshop at which the Mozambican National Lion Conservation Strategy and Action Plan was developed in July 2009. NLP is assisting the Reserve management in continuing implementation of this forward-looking plan to protect the nation’s African lion population on a long-term basis.
Balancing the economic importance of tourism (both to the Reserve’s human communities and to its wildlife management budget) with the need for protecting the sustainable health and viability of the wild lion population, Reserve staff is charged with enforcement of sport hunting guidelines. NLP has assisted in developing and implementing the enforcement of "aging" guidelines to make the present reality of sport hunting as ecologically sustainable as possible.
International Coordination of Lion Conservation Efforts
Some 200 kilometers to the north of Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve, in neighboring Tanzania, lies the Selous Game Reserve. Africa’s largest protected area, the Selous reserve is itself home to an estimated 4,000 African lions. Within Tanzania, a Niassa-Selous wildlife corridor has been designated as a vital link between the wildlife populations in each reserve. NLP shares data and actively collaborates with colleagues and agencies in Tanzania to protect the corridor for the sustainable conservation of the African lion and other wide-ranging species of carnivore whose habitat both nations share.