Mozambique: Preserving One of Africa’s Biodiversity Sanctuaries

Mozambique, Niassa, biodiversity, landscape
Africa Mozambique
Preserving One of Africa’s
Biodiversity Sanctuaries
The Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique is one of Africa’s last remaining unspoilt wildernesses. Its diverse ecosystems support globally important populations of elephant, lion, leopard, sable, zebra, hippo, and crocodile. Yet, some of these iconic species have been decimated by poaching, which saw half of all the country’s elephants disappear since 2006. Renewed political commitment to conservation and a series of coordinated anti-poaching measures have contributed to a significant drop in poaching in this biodiversity sanctuary.

Mozambique is a country of extraordinary biological diversity. Its network of protected areas makes up 26% of the land area in the country. Covering about 42,000 square kilometres (approximately the size of the Netherlands), the Niassa National Reserve is Mozambique’s largest protected area.  

The natural heritage of Niassa has been affected by wars, illegal logging and mining, poaching, population growth, human-wildlife conflict, and climate change.

Elephants were particularly affected by poaching due to growing global demand for ivory, which resulted in the decrease of the estimated elephant population from over 12,000 in 2011 to around 4,000 in 2014 in Niassa alone.

The Niassa National Reserve is home to around 60,000 people whose livelihoods depend on the natural resources the Reserve provides. One of the greatest challenges facing conservation is finding a balance between protecting biodiversity, while simultaneously ensuring local communities see the benefit of conservation areas. 

With the Conservation Areas and Protection of Elephants (APEM) project launched in Mozambique in 2016, AFD is doing just that. “Our challenge is to balance conservation and economic development for the local people. If the population’s increasing pressure on the environment in the conservation areas is not well managed, wildlife and forestry resources will be exploited unsustainably, which nullifies our conservation efforts,” Mathieu Boche, Agriculture, Biodiversity  and Rural Development Project Manager at AFD, said. 

The project, implemented by Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC) in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), aims to strengthen the management of protected areas in Mozambique and improve the surveillance and anti-poaching systems in the Niassa National Reserve and the Limpopo National Park

Mozambique, Niassa, biodiversity, elephants
Mozambique, Niassa, biodiversity, Sebastiao
Sebastião Saize: A life spent protecting nature’s giants
Wearing military fatigues and his AK-47 firmly in hand, Sebastião Saize points out at a few elephants carcasses scattered all over the ground. “We only reached the site 24 hours after the elephants had been killed, because of heavy rains. When we arrived, we found seven dead elephants in a pool of blood, with their tusks removed,” remembers Sebastião of a day in 2017, when an entire family of elephants was killed by poachers. “I felt so angry and sad…I felt like I lost a family member.”

Sebastião is Niassa National Reserve’s Head of Surveillance Operations. In 2017, the Reserve lost 129 elephants to poaching. Although killings were lower in 2017 than in previous year – and especially the 2009-2011 period – the numbers of elephants killed by poachers was still unacceptably high. With limited surveillance tools and a vast area to patrol, Niassa’s game scouts were unable to stop heavily armed and highly structured ivory trafficking syndicates.

To fight elephant poaching head on, a coordinated anti-poaching strategy was implemented in early 2018. Critical to this, was the Mozambican government’s decision to deploy a Rapid Intervention Unit to carry out joint police-scouts patrols in the Reserve.

With funding from the APEM project, ANAC provided the scouts with training, while an helicopter was charted to conduct daily patrols of areas with known elephant concentrations. An improved digital radio system within the Reserve and the collaring of 40 elephants with GPS transmitters resulted in better coordination among all partners on anti-poaching operations. These actions resulted in an 87% reduction in the number of illegally killed elephants in 2018 compared to 2017. Between May 2018 and May 2019, no elephants were killed illegally in the Niassa National Reserve.
Mozambique, Niassa, biodiversity, Odete
Odete Boma: Promoting local communities’ participation in conservation
Alongside anti-poaching and surveillance activities, the Niassa National Reserve carries out awareness and education activities with the local communities. These include environmental clubs in schools, workshop with community leaders and members, recycling activities, a mobile cinema, and clean-up campaigns.

Every Friday afternoon, Odete Boma, Environment Education Officer, conducts a workshop with the Niassa National Reserve’s workers. “We discuss a range of topics: the impact of uncontrolled burning of fields, illegal mining and fishing, deforestation, poaching, pollution of rivers, but also healthcare and how to care of livestock,” Odete says. According to her experience, the response to her activity has been positive, from both adults and children. “When I work with children, I need to explain things in a simple way so they can understand. But with time and patience, they eventually like these classes. There are some who adults prefer to ignore and resist. But in the majority of people who participate in our activities are helping spread the conservation message in their communities.”

The main concern raised by community members is the need for income generative alternatives, as poverty and unemployment are high in their communities.

“Sometimes people are willing to run the risk to go to prison because they do not know any alternatives. But we tell them there are things they can do to generate income, such as agriculture, participation in community projects, livestock rearing. It’s not enough to say ‘no, you can’t do this’, it’s important to show them and discuss the alternatives,” Odete says.
Mozambique, Niassa, biodiversity, elephants
Baldeu Chande a veteran of conservation work
Niassa National Reserve’s Administrator Baldeu Chande has spent the last twenty years working as an administrator for Mozambique’s major protected areas – Niassa, Quirimbas, Limpopo, and Gorongosa. He feels that Niassa has come a long way since the days when poaching of elephants was out of control. “When I came back to Niassa, in 2017, one elephant was being killed every day. The scouts were simply not equipped, not well trained and not enough,” Baldeu says. The situation turned around with increased international funding and political will on the part of the Mozambican government.

“We started training the scouts and equipped them with better weapons. At the same time, the new conservation law was implemented, so poachers could now face between two and seven years in jail, as opposed to just being fined. In addition, the government sent down the police’s Rapid Intervention Unit to work alongside the scouts. This sent a clear signal to the poachers that we are serious about this,” Baldeu says.

Baldeu mentions the building of an electric fence as another positive achievement of the work of the Reserve. The fence prevents crop raids by buffalos, pigs and elephants, which is one of the biggest threats to the livelihoods of the Reserve’s residents.

Baldeu laments uncertainty about future funding as the main hurdle to continue walking this fruitful path. “Lack of funding and expertise are a great challenge.
Financial resources can mobilise human resources and can be used to implement community projects, increase the number of rangers and improve their equipment”.

Baldeu feel hopeful about the future, but climate change is his mind. “We are on the right path to reduce poaching with education of communities, better surveillance and equipment. But we also need attention and funding to mitigate the effect of climate change, because climate change is quickly becoming the biggest threat to the long-term survival of our wildlife.”
Mozambique, Niassa, biodiversity, electronic tablet
Private sector operators: key partners in conservation

The APEM project contributes to strengthening long-term public-private partnerships. An example of such partnership is the Luwire Wildlife Conservancy, located on the South-eastern bank of the Lugenda River. This private concession works closely with the Reserve’s administration in terms of coordinating surveillance activities and conservation efforts. Funded by a private investor, Luwire hosts a luxury lodge that attracts tourists looking for a unique wilderness experience. “We receive mostly tourists interested in wildlife photography and walking safaris. They are willing to pay for something real and exclusive,” John Nel, Luwire’s General Manager says.

Luwire is part of the Niassa Conservation Alliance (NCA), which groups three private operators making up nearly 40% of the area within the Reserve.  “We are three private operators with a strong commitment to conservation and combating illegal activities within the Reserve”, John says. The NCA’s members pool their resources and expertise to find practical and robust solutions to the challenges of conservation and secure long-term financial support. 

 “We re-invest all the money we make into conservation effort. Our success is the fact that we probably have over half of the elephant population in our three concessions, which means that the elephants feel safe enough to come back,” John says. Thanks to coordination with the Reserve administration, Luwire was able to equip and train the scouts and improve monitoring of the area, which resulted in the reduction of illegal mining activities. 

A perfect balance between conservation and economic development 
Mozambique, biodiversity, Niassa, river
© Chiara Frisone / AFD

With its diverse and abundant animal and plant species, the Niassa National Reserve is real gem of biodiversity in Mozambique and as such, deserves to be preserved for generations to come. The commitment to conservation demonstrated by the Government of Mozambique and the funding and support provided by international donors and wildlife NGOs are bearing fruit, as can be seen in the reduction in elephant poaching in the last year. 

Going forward, the Niassa National Reserve Administration, in partnership with WCS, is currently drafting a 10-year (2019-2029) management plan that seeks to better involve local communities in decision making, preserve the gains made in biodiversity conservation, as well as promote the wellbeing and livelihood of the 60,000 people living inside the Reserve. 

In addition, the Reserve’s administration and the various concessions will continue promoting nature-based tourism as a way to further conservation and create local jobs at the same time.  

Further reading: 

Mozambique Biodiversity and development, a natural alliance

Pierre Failler and Ewan Trégarot: “Protecting an Ecosystem Doesn’t Cost Much, but Pays Immense Dividends!”

Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean: AFD Contributes To the Medfund Environmental Fund