Site icon Conservation news

Lions rising: community conservation making a difference for Africa’s kings in Mozambique

Colleen Begg will be speaking at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 12th, 2013.

Everyone knows that tigers, pandas, and blue whales are threatened with extinction—but lions!? Researchers were shocked to recently discover that lion populations have fallen precipitously: down to around 30,000 animals across the African continent. While 30,000 may sound like a lot, this is a nearly 70 percent decline since 1960. In addition, lion populations are increasingly fragmented with a number of populations having vanished altogether. However, there is hope: one place where lion populations are actually on the rise is Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. Here, lion populations have risen by around 60 percent in just seven years. In part this is due to the effort of Colleen and Keith Begg.

The Beggs run the Niassa Carnivore Project, which seeks to mitigate conflict between lions and the 35,000 people who live inside Niassa. In order to safeguard Niassa’s lions, the Beggs work with the people of the park. The Niassa Carnivore Project partners with communities to build predator-proof livestock pens and mitigate poaching including the use of snares (which often unintentionally catches predators like lions). The Beggs and their team also do intensive community outreach and education, using everything from theatre to children’s books to change hearts and minds about lions.

Map of Niassa National Reserve. Courtesy of Niassa Carnivore Project.

Although, the Beggs are passionate about lions, they also have a deep understanding of the difficulties communities can face living on the door step with top predators.

“I think we should never forget or minimize the high costs that local communities have to bear when living in close proximity to dangerous animals like lions and elephants,” Colleen Begg told “The costs may be too high in some areas and we will need to be pragmatic and agree that not all lion populations can be saved. A lion attack is a horrific event that is never forgotten and losing livestock is like losing your savings. In some areas, we can get it to work but it depends on the numbers—how many lions, how much natural prey and how many people.”

Building a more stable peace between people and lions will not be easy or cheap, according to Begg, and in some places it may even require fencing lions (or people) in. But, as seen from the recent success at Niassa, it is possible.

Colleen Begg will be presenting at the up-coming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 12th, 2013, an event which will be headed by Jane Goodall.


Colleen Begg with local chiefs promoting a living fence (using woody species to fence off villages). Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Mongabay: What drew you to lions?

Colleen Begg: Wild lions epitomize wilderness, and Keith and I are passionate about the conservation of wild African places and its carnivores. Wild lions can be an indicator of how the bush is doing. If the lions are faring well then the place is doing well. You don’t even have to see them, just see the paw print in the dust or hear the roar at night and you know, this is Africa, this is wilderness and all is as it should be. Something irrevocable is lost when there are no more lions in a wild place.

In 2003, we arrived in Niassa National Reserve in northern Mozambique to study honey badgers and to do the first carnivore survey. We were attracted to Niassa because of its size and remoteness (42,000km2) and because 35,000 people were living inside the protected area and we were fascinated by the interface between people and wildlife. At around the same time there was a growing realization that lion populations had declined rapidly across Africa and there were far fewer lions remaining in the wild than anyone had realized (less than 32,000 is the current best estimate). This was a shock. How had this happened to lions, the most visual and social of Africa’s cats and under the combined watch of all the scientists, conservationists, film makers, photographers, and ecotourists—ourselves included?

Niassa Carnivore Project collared lions in order to monitor movements. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

In Niassa Reserve, we found that while lions were resident, their numbers (600-800) were lower than we expected given the huge area being protected. Yet still this population was of international conservation importance and there was potential for this population to increase. Working with the Niassa Reserve Management Authority and with permission from the Government of Mozambique, we decided this warranted more investigation. We realized that if we could secure the lions, we would not only be making a significant contribution to their conservation but this would also go a long way to securing the place. Our early research showed that these lions faced significant threats such as unsustainable sport hunting, bushmeat snaring, retaliatory killing and potentially disease spread from domestic dogs. We then started working out sustainable and locally derived ways to reduce these threats working in collaboration with Reserve communities, the management authority and tourism operators.

Mongabay: Lions have undergone a terrible decline in the last century. What have been the primary drivers of this decline?

Colleen Begg: The primary driver is human population growth with less and less space for lion. Associated with the spread of people and destruction of savannah habitats there has been an increase in bushmeat snaring (which kills lions and their prey), retaliatory killing and poisoning in response to attacks on people and livestock and unsustainable, unregulated sport hunting.

Mongabay: How are lions faring in Niassa National Reserve and in Mozambique in general?

Colleen Begg: The lion in Niassa Reserve are doing well. We have been working in Niassa Reserve in collaboration with the Mozambican Reserve Management authority and Ministry of Tourism since 2003. We survey the lion population every 3-4 years across the whole Reserve and also monitor lions in an intensive study areas of 600 square kilometers. Over this period the lion population in Niassa Reserve has increased from between 600-800 lions in 2005, to 1,000-1,200 lions in 2012. This makes Niassa National Reserve a stronghold for lion conservation in Africa and one of less than 10 areas in Africa that still have more than 1,000 lions.

However, while the news is good there is no time to rest as the human population living inside Niassa Reserve is growing (35,000 people across 40 villages) and reducing bushmeat snaring and potential for conflict are a priority. Bushmeat snares are wire snares set by people to catch wild meat to eat and to sell. The lions are not the target but we estimate that more than 40 lions a year are killed in the snares. We are working hard in collaboration with the Mozambican management authority (a co-management agreement between Wildlife Conservation Society and Ministry of Tourism) to reduce poaching and find alternative livelihoods and protein sources.
Bushmeat snaring and human-lion conflict are not only a problem in Niassa but also right across Mozambique and further afield across lion range. There are estimated to be about 2,000-2,500 lions in Mozambique but no-one really knows. A new lion project has also been started in Gorongosa National Park under the leadership of Paola Booley, and they are working hard to secure and conserve the lion population (30-50) in this iconic National park as part of the Gorongosa Restoration project.

Mongabay: Can booming human communities and wild lions live peaceably together?

Lion and human footprints side-by-side in Niassa National Reserve. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Colleen Begg: Not often peaceably, more like in an uneasy truce. I do think that coexistence is possible in some areas by increasing tolerance, reducing conflict and increasing direct benefits to communities from lions. Several lion projects are having success with protecting livestock bomas from lions and reducing lion attacks through community engagement. I think we should never forget or minimize the high costs that local communities have to bear when living in close proximity to dangerous animals like lions and elephants. The costs may be too high in some areas and we will need to be pragmatic and agree that not all lion populations can be saved. A lion attack is a horrific event that is never forgotten and losing livestock is like losing your savings. In some areas, we can get it to work but it depends on the numbers—how many lions, how much natural prey and how many people. It also depends on the type of communities (agriculture, pastoral), political will in each country and international pressure. A lot of funding, time and dedicated people are needed to pull this off. While we have effective solutions, our main problem is scaling this up to a level that is meaningful for lion conservation but at the same time allows development and increased food security in communities. There are huge challenges ahead and it is going to take a collaborative effort and huge amounts of funding if we are to get this right, in time.

Mongabay: How do you convince local communities to see lions as assets and not dangerous pests?

Colleen Begg: First and most important make sure that people and their livestock are safe from lion attacks. This should be a priority wherever people and lions live together. Help people to build predator proof livestock corrals and safe shelters, reduce the movement of wildlife through villages, respond to all lion attacks quickly and with empathy, and teach people what behaviors make them vulnerable so that they can take responsibility for their own safety. Lions cannot be valued above human life and we shouldn’t expect people to like lions, they are extremely dangerous pests from a community perspective however they can also be assets that bring significant financial benefits to communities. They can also be neutral and tolerated.

Secondly, provide direct, significant benefits from lion conservation to the people who live with lions whether this is through revenue sharing from tourism, performance payments, community assistance to reduce conflict, skills training, education or direct employment. These benefits have to be significant, long lasting, locally appropriate and transparent and the links between the lions and the benefits must be clear and direct. Conservation can’t just be about saying no, we have also provide incentives for success and these incentives have to be relevant at both a community and individual level.

Mongabay: You recently co-authored a paper suggesting that fencing lion populations may be the best means of protecting them. Will you tell us about this idea?

Family living in Niassa National Reserve. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Colleen Begg: It is critically important that we objectively look at what is working for lions and what has failed. We don’t have time to continue to make the same mistakes. The aim of the paper was to have a look at the effect of fencing and management budgets on lion population size and growth rates. It also took into consideration human population density, governance, sport hunting, private management and the size of the protected area. Professor Craig Packer collated the data from more than 50 scientists across 42 study sites from 11 countries. Just putting this level of data together with input from so many areas was a major feat and helped us to see patterns.

The results show that lion population densities are highest in fenced reserves and in areas with highest management budgets. Not only are fenced lion populations at 80% or more of their estimated carrying capacity but it is costing considerably less to manage these lion populations compared to lions in unfenced areas ($500 / square kilometers compared to $2000 km2). Of course there are still more lions in unfenced areas as the fenced populations remain relatively small. Unsurprisingly, physical separation between people and wildlife is a highly effective conservation tool for lion and other animals. A physical fence is likely to reduce poaching, habitat destruction and human-lion conflict. The paper shows clearly that fences are an effective conservation tool, they can be part of our “toolkit.”

Of course, as shown in the paper, a physical fence is not suitable in all areas and would only work in areas where there are defined boundaries and no migratory people and wildlife. In very large, wildlife dominated areas it might also be more appropriate to fence in communities to reduce conflict rather than to fence the entire wildlife area. While much of the debate about the paper has focused on the controversial use of fences the paper also highlighted the critical situation facing lions today, building on previous studies. It predicted that just less than half of the unfenced lion populations may go extinct in the next 20-40 years. It also highlighted the vast amount of funding that are going to be needed to effectively protect many of the unfenced populations.

Mongabay: The fencing idea has proven controversial. What do you say to other lion researchers who believe this is a flawed strategy?

Lion resting under Batwa rock paintings. Humans evolved in Africa beside lions. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Colleen Begg: Sometimes, an objective look at a lot of data can help us have new insights into a problem and help us move forward. It forces us to keep an open mind and not become entrenched in our current positions. At this point, new ideas are needed and we need to very critically assess what we have done wrong in the past and how we can turn things around otherwise we will lose lions. The value of this paper is that it has generated a lot of discussion on how best to conserve lions. I think it needs to be remembered that this wasn’t an opinion piece, it was an objective analysis of a lot of data and the data showed clearly that fencing is as an effective tool for conservation, especially in small areas. Of course there are always caveats and exceptions and of course we don’t all agree. The exciting thing about science is that we can have these vociferous discussions and disagree strongly but still all have a common goal.

To many of us the thought of fencing in our large wilderness areas remains an anathema because it symbolizes a return to fortress style conservation and something undefinable seems to be lost when a place is fenced. We have fought long and hard to break down fences and extend wildlife areas to allow the free movement of game. The idea of putting up fences makes us uncomfortable. We have worked so hard to include carnivores in unprotected areas as part of our conservation strategies and in many of these areas fences would not be possible. We know that for some species, like African wild dogs and cheetah, fences are a disaster because they need such large areas to roam. It is also true that fencing will have disastrous consequences in some areas where there isn’t a clear boundary and where people and/or animals are migratory. All this is true but it doesn’t take away from the conclusions of the paper that fences have worked very well to protect lions in some areas and are cost effective. Let us not throw out the whole idea just because it might not work in some areas. We need to critically have a look at the remaining lion populations and see if there are other areas where fences could be put in place. We have a toolbox of solutions, not all will be useful in all areas.

If we can’t fence or don’t want to fence then we have to be prepared to lose many of the unfenced lion populations in the next 20 to 40 years unless we can come up with much, much more funding for lion conservation than is currently available. Armed with these facts we can now start to look at different lion populations and ask specific questions. Would a fence work here? How much would it cost? If we can’t fence it how much money do we need to secure it? Given the amount of money we have where should we concentrate our efforts to secure lions? I for one, think the fencing idea is of value to conservation in Niassa Reserve but not to fence the whole wilderness area but to fence in communities within the wildlife dominated landscape to reduce conflict and as part of land use planning. Our living fences and beehive fence programs do exactly this.

The value of the paper is the questions it inspires and the challenge it presents to everyone out there. Securing lions for the foreseeable future is going to take some tough decisions, a lot of funding (much more than we are currently generating), a lot of collaboration and new ideas.

Male lion in Niassa. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Using theatre to bring lions and lion research to children in Niassa National Reserve. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Wire snare used to illegally catch bushmeat. Niassa Carnivore Project is developing alternative protein projects to help decrease poaching. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Use of wire snares also harms and kills non-target animals, such as lions. This lion was caught with a snare around its waist, which was removed. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Building a living fence to mitigate human-wildlife conflict in Niassa. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Better-built goat corral helps decrease attacks by lions and leopards. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Aerial view of Niassa National Reserve. Photo by: Niassa Carnivore Project.

Related articles

Protecting predators in the wildest landscape you’ve never heard of

(09/10/2013) The Serengeti, the Congo, the Okavango Delta: many of Africa’s great wildernesses are household names, however on a continent that never fails to surprise remain vast wild lands practically unknown to the global public. One of these is the Ruaha landscape: covering 51,800 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) of southern Tanzania’s woodlands and savannah, Ruaha contains the largest population of elephants in East Africa, over 500 bird species, and a wealth of iconic top predators, including cheetah, hyena, wild dogs, leopard, and—the jewel in its crown—10 percent of the world’s lions. But that’s not all, one of Africa’s least-known and secretive tribal groups, the Barabaig, also calls Ruaha home.

Scientists: lions need funding not fences

(07/15/2013) Fences are not the answer to the decline in Africa’s lions, according to a new paper in Ecology Letters. The new research directly counters an earlier controversial study that argued keeping lions fenced-in would be cheaper and more effective in saving the big cats. African lion (Panthera leo) populations across the continent have fallen dramatically: it’s estimated that the current population is around 15,000-35,000 lions, down from 100,000 just 50 years ago. The animal kings are suffering from booming human populations, habitat loss and fragmentation, prey decline, trophy hunting, and human-lion conflict.

Lions for sale: big game hunting combines with lion bone trade to threaten endangered cats

(04/18/2013) Koos Hermanus would rather not give names to the lions he breeds. So here, behind a 2.4-meter high electric fence, is 1R, a three-and-a-half-year-old male, who consumes 5kg of meat a day and weighs almost 200kg. It will only leave its enclosure once it has been “booked”‘ by a hunter, most of whom are from the United States. At that point the big cat will be set loose in the wild for the first time in its life, 96 hours before the hunt begins. It usually takes about four days to track down the prey, with the trophy hunter following its trail on foot, accompanied by big-game professionals including Hermanus. He currently has 14 lions at his property near Groot Marico, about two and a half hours by road west of Johannesburg.

Male lions require dense vegetation for successful ambush hunting

(03/20/2013) For a long time male lions were derided as the lazy ones in the pride, depending on females for the bulk of hunting and not pulling their weight. Much of this was based on field observations—female lions hunt cooperatively, often in open savannah, and therefore are easier to track at night. But new research in Animal Behaviour is showing that males are adroit hunters in their own right, except prickly males hunt alone and use dense vegetation as cover; instead of social hunting in open savannah, they depend on ambushing unsuspecting prey.

Forgotten lions: shedding light on the fate of lions in unprotected areas

(03/18/2013) African lions (Panthera leo) living outside of protected areas like national parks or reserves also happen to be studied much less than those residing within protected areas, to the detriment of lion conservation initiatives. In response to this trend, a group of researchers surveyed an understudied, unprotected region in northwestern Mozambique called the Tete Province, whose geography and proximity to two national parks suggests a presence of lions.

The end of wild Africa?: lions may need fences to survive

(03/06/2013) In order for dwindling lion populations to survive in Africa, large-scale fencing projects may be required according to new research in Ecology Letters. Recent estimates have put lion populations down to 15,000-35,000, a massive drop from a population that was thought to be around 100,000 in 1960. The worsening plight of lions have pushed the researchers to suggest what is likely to be a controversial proposal: fence the top predators in.

Geneticists discover distinct lion group in squalid conditions

(02/04/2013) They languished behind bars in squalid conditions, their very survival in jeopardy. Outside, an international team of advocates strove to bring worldwide attention to their plight. With modern genetics, the experts sought to prove what they had long believed: that these individuals were special. Like other cases of individuals waiting for rescue from a life of deprivation behind bars, the fate of those held captive might be dramatically altered with the application of genetic science to answer questions of debated identity. Now recent DNA analysis has made it official: this group is special and because of their scientifically confirmed distinctiveness they will soon enjoy greater freedom.

Three developing nations move to ban hunting to protect vanishing wildlife

(01/21/2013) Three developing countries have recently toughened hunting regulations believing the changes will better protect vanishing species. Botswana has announced it will ban trophy hunting on public lands beginning in 2014, while Zambia has recently banned any hunting of leopards or lions, both of which are disappearing across Africa. However, the most stringent ban comes from another continent: Costa Rica—often considered one of the “greenest” countries on Earth—has recently passed a law that bans all sport hunting and trapping both inside and outside protected areas. The controversial new law is considered the toughest in the Western Hemisphere.

Lion population falls 68 percent in 50 years

(12/04/2012) African lions, one of the most iconic species on the planet, are in rapid decline. According to a new study in Biodiversity Conservation, the African lion (Panthera leo leo) population has dropped from around 100,000 animals just fifty years ago to as few as 32,000 today. The study, which used high resolution satellite imagery to study savannah ecosystems across Africa, also found that lion habitat had plunged by 75 percent.

Africa’s great savannahs may be more endangered than the world’s rainforests

(12/04/2012) Few of the world’s ecosystems are more iconic than Africa’s sprawling savannahs home to elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and the undisputed king of the animal kingdom: lions. This wild realm, where megafauna still roam in abundance, has inspired everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Karen Blixen, and David Livingstone to Theodore Roosevelt. Today it is the heart of Africa’s wildlife tourism and includes staunch defenders such as Richard Leakey, Michael Fay, and the Jouberts. Despite this, the ecosystem has received less media attention than imperiled ecosystems like rainforests. But a ground-breaking study in Biodiversity Conservation finds that 75 percent of these large-scale intact grasslands have been lost, at least from the lion’s point of view.