niassa1Whenever we fly from the coastal town of Pemba westward across northern Mozambique, we are impressed by the unbroken expanse of woodland that lies below. There are no hard boundaries here and it is impossible to tell from the air when we are overflying the protected area.Niassa National Reserve lies at the heart of the region, midway between the coast and Lake Niassa, with the Ruvuma River forming its northern boundary as well as the  international border between Tanzania and Mozambique. During colonial times, the Portuguese called this region Fim de mundo – the end of the world – because it was such an isolated part of the country. Just a few years ago the roads in it were some of the most challenging in eastern or southern Africa; today an excellent tar road extends from Pemba almost all the way to Lichinga on the highland plateau above Lake Niassa. Construction is also well under way on the Unity Bridge, which will be the first direct road link with Tanzania, crossing the Ruvuma River at Negomano,in the north-eastern corner of the reserve.

niassa2More than twice the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the Niassa Reserve’s 42 000 square kilometres make it not only by far the largest conservation area in Mozambique, but also one of the most extensive protected areas in Africa. It was first established in 1954, then was abandoned during the hostilities in the 1970s and ’80s until the peace accord was signed in 1992. The new Mozambican government then took a bold and innovative step and entered into an arrangement to manage Niassa Reserve as a public/private partnership. In 1998 SRN (Sociedade para a Gestão e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa) assumed responsibility for the reserve, and in the same year it featured for the first time in Africa Geographic.

niassa3Much progress has been made since then. Another important and productive partnership was formed in SRN and Fauna & Flora International,and this has undoubtedly led to the emergence of Niassa Reserve from the shadows.‘Are there any animals left?’ is a question we are regularly asked, even by Mozambicans. Our answer is always an emphatic ‘Yes!’ Initially it was the elephants, particularly the ‘big tuskers’, that caught everyone’s attention and provided the first impetus for renewed conservation efforts. The biannual aerial surveys conducted since 1998 confirm that there is a growing population of about 12 000 elephants, but that’s certainly not all. Niassa also supports some 6 000 buffaloes and increasing populations of almost all the ungulates, specifically the three endemic sub-species: Johnston’s impala, Niassa wildebeest and Boehm’s zebra. Sable are particularly well represented, with as many as 13 000 distributed across the miombo woodlands. Only black rhino and possibly roan antelope seem to have been lost. A series of short biodiversity studies (on plants, carnivores, reptiles, amphibians, bats and spiders) have also revealed a host of new species and surprises. In many cases these seem to have been the first systematic surveys done here, perhaps because southern Africa typically ends at the Zambezi River and eastern Africa tends to start at the Ruvuma, with northern Mozambique falling into a no-man’s-land between them.

Our own work has concentrated on mammalian carnivores in the Niassa Reserve, of which there are 24 species at least. Eight mongoose species include the rarely seen Meller’s mongoose and a black-tailed form of white-tailed mongoose, and there are also two civets (African and African palm), serval, honey badger, African clawless otter and four genets. Among the larger carnivores, over the past four years we have documented a growing and viable population of 700 to 900 lions and significant numbers of spotted hyaena and leopard. Undoubtedly, though, the most exciting news has been confirmation of a sizeable population of African wild dogs. These Critically Endangered canids number fewer than 6 000 individuals globally, so the Niassa population of at least 400 dogs is of both national and internationalimportance.

niassa mapWhile never densely populated – relatively infertile soils, malaria and the presence of tsetse fly had seen to that – the region has clearly been inhabited for thousands of years. And today, like most other protected areas in Mozambique, the Niassa Reserve still has a human component, in this case some 25 000 people in 40 villages. Since we started working here, we have been fascinated by the complex interplay between wildlife and people. Niassa’s residents are mainly from the Yao and Makua tribal groups, with some Ngoni, Marave and Matambwe people.

From a tourism point of view, Niassa’s two greatest asets are the Lugenda River and Mecula Mountain. The Lugenda meanders 360 kilometres through the reserve, finally joining the Ruvuma River at the village of Negomano. Unconstrained by dams or agriculture, it is quite possibly Mozambique’s wildest and most pristine major river, presenting a multitude of personalities as it flows from the complex Pandanus palm-braided channels in the west, through rocky gorges where the entire river disappears into slot canyons, to the broad sandy waterways in the east with their breeding colonies of globally threatened African skimmers. Initial surveys of the river have revealed more than 40 fish species, with more being added to the list each year, and a viable and growing population of 600 hippos. Some deep pools are known to harbour man-eating crocodiles, but they are rarely seen. The Lugenda also supports a vital fishing industry, which provides the staple protein and income for many local communities. Inaugural canoe safaris have been a success and sport fishing may also become a possibility. At the centre of the reserve, Mecula Mountain rises 1 441 metres above sea level, straddling the watershed. A diversity of vegetation types, particularly high-altitude forest, has led to the mountain being identified as the most important botanical area within Niassa. A new species of girdled lizard has already been discovered, and the moist montane forests are home to flocks of silvery-cheeked hornbills and buffalo and elephant herds.

niassa map 2A detailed management and zonation plan developed for Niassa by SRN has recently been signed by the Mozambican government. This is the blueprint for the reserve’s foreseeable future and will guide development and conservation activities. According to the plan, Niassa has been divided into 16  distinct management units: Mecula Mountain, for example, has been designated a Special Conservation Area, while ecotourism and sport hunting have been allocated to Resource Conservation Areas. In effect, Niassa is so vast that many of the units are the size of entire national parks and different strategies can be applied in different ones, taking into account the needs of local communities, income-generating activities and the protection of key biodiversity and cultural areas. At the same time, all the units can be managed coherently under a central authority.

It was difficult to establish ecotourism in the past because of the lack of infrastructure in the region, but the situation is changing rapidly. The first few specialist walking safaris have been well received, and birding safaris in particular have proved popular, with Stierling’s woodpecker, southern banded snake-eagle, Angola pitta and Taita falcon as some of the local specials. The luxurious Lugenda Bush Camp, representing the first major investment in ecotourism, opened its doors in 2006 and four concessions are currently open for tender, with more in the pipeline. In conservation terms, the absence of hard boundaries in any direction means that elephants, lions and African wild dogs can roam well beyond the protected area, from the coast to Lake Niassa and extending at least 100 kilometres to the south.

In addition to this, the establishment of the Selous–Niassa Wildlife Corridor in southern Tanzania, which connects the Selous Game Reserve to the Ruvuma River and north-western Niassa, has created one of the largest wildlife areas in Africa. The corridor was initially established to provide a permanent link between two of the continent’s largest intact elephant ranges and to protect elephant migratory routes, but it also potentially links and allows gene flow between the wild dog populations in Selous and Niassa, creating a single population of well over 1 000 individuals. If it is to continue to develop and make meaningful contributions both to the local communities and to conservation, it is essential that Niassa Reserve eventually becomes financially sustainable and generates a local economy to fund management activities.

The reality is that there are very few conservation areas of this scale left in Africa. Throughout the continent, more and more efforts and finances are being mobilised to conserve small remnant populations of species in danger of extinction, yet here in Mozambique is a vast area that survives intact and by its sheer size already supports viable and globally important populations of threatened species. The challenge over the next decade will be to secure the future of this special wilderness and its people by implementing the innovative management plan.

Excerpts from : Emerging from the Shadows : Niassa National ReserveBy : Colleen and Keith Begg

For more information on Niassa National Reserve : Niassa Reserve