By Emma Ledger – The Independent
Derek Littleton, Conservation Manager at Northern Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve, on the desperate need for action.
African nations face some of the planet’s toughest challenges. For example, despite contributing little to global warming, Mozambique suffered horrific destruction when Cyclone Idai tore through the country last month. At the same time, the country’s once-bountiful wildlife is under constant threat from poachers working for international organised crime syndicates.
Nearly half of Mozambique’s elephants were killed for their ivory in the five years up to 2015, a crisis that saw the population plummet from over 20,000 to an estimated 10,300. Within Mozambique’s largest national park–- the Niassa National Reserve – one of Africa’s last remaining unspoilt wildernesses, the crisis struck a bit later and harder. The elephant population declined massively from an estimated 13,000 to 3,000 by 2018.
Since then it has largely been down to the work of those dedicated individuals on the ground to protect elephants and the landscapes they depend on. Derek Littleton, Conservation Manager at the Luwire Wildlife Conservancy – the largest of Niassa’ s fifteen private concessions – has along with his loyal indigenous scouts, been on the front line of this fight. .
“Wildlife is my vocation,” smiles Littleton. “It is something that is worth fighting for. Niassa is one of the last big wildernesses we have left, but there are very few people who have been willing to fight for it.”
Niassa borders the southern Tanzanian border and at 42,000 square kilometres is twice the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park and larger than the Netherlands and roughly the size of Massachusetts. Luwire forms its southern border. Niassa’s diverse ecosystems support many species – including globally important populations of elephant, lion, leopard, sable, zebra, hippo, and crocodile. Rhinos went locally extinct only in the last ten years.
Littleton has been working in conservation for 36 years, and for the past 18 of those he has led a small team caring for Luwire, representing over one million acres of pristine Niassa. Luwire is truly remote with limited tourism infrastructure. It’s is one of the few remaining places on earth where you can walk for a week and see no human being!
Littleton is hard as nails but friendly and outgoing. He is Niassa’s answer to ‘Crocodile Dundee’ after several close encounters involving the snap-happy reptiles. But crocodiles have been low down on Littleton’s list of high-stakes challenges in recent years. He has faced threats on his life and has regularly come face to face with armed ivory poachers. At one point, he had to temporarily base his partner Paula Ferro outside the Reserve.
“During the height of the crisis we had frequent armed interactions with poachers, we were poorly armed and we had no indemnity,” he says. “We have our own law enforcement team of game scouts but our effectiveness is resource dependent. The commitment and courage of our team has never failed but funding and political will has not always been consistent. ‘
‘We have benefited immensely over the years from the support of Dubai’s Aujan Group – Luwire’ s concessionaire. But defending Luwire against poachers has raised the stakes and the costs. The Aujan Group can no longer be expected to carry the burden alone.’
‘In the Government of Felipe Nyusi, we finally have a champion who can help us protect this country’s incredible natural assets. When poaching levels started to rise again last year, the Government sent in special police troops to work alongside the Luwire team and Reserve teams. Simultaneously, and to act as a deterrent, the judicial system was strengthened to increase sentences for wildlife crimes’ Luwire has been the finger in Niassa’s dyke, but it is President Nyusi’s intervention that has avoided catastrophe.’
“We are really lucky that we now have a President who understands conservation,” says Littleton. “President Nyusi has a genuine passion and he’s very much involved. I hope that part of his legacy will be to make conservation more mainstream in Mozambique. On our side, we can’t be complacent and have lots more work to do to make conservation work for local Mozambicans.
Third party verification of the new approach in Mozambique comes from Max Graham, Founder of African conservation NGO Space for Giants.
‘We have been watching Mozambique for some time and have noticed the sea change in attitudes towards conservation. Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park is an excellent ‘proof of concept’ as to how key stakeholders (Government, NGOs and local people) – once appropriately funded – can come together to make nature work for Mozambicans. We are already working with Luwire in Niassa and hope to step up our involvement later this year’.
Now that the country’s leaders are doing their bit to fight illegal wildlife crimes, the last big piece of the puzzle to save Niassa is to secure long term investment.
‘We need sustainable benefits for communities living in the Reserve. We need to transform the locals from consumers of nature into long term guardians of their natural heritage. We need to provide the initial spark in the form of education and jobs in security and eco-tourism’.
In 2002, Luwire Safaris became the first legal operator to accept the challenges of pioneering safaris in Niassa. Luwire was set up as a hunting concession. Like many African nations, Mozambique still permits controlled hunting – but the hunting pressure is kept low, and ethics high. Further, one hundred percent of all hunting profits are recycled into conservation and all kills replace the hunting of and address the protein needs of local communities. Finally, the presence of hunters actually deters poachers.
Nonetheless, Littleton’s vision is to transition to a future that moves away from a financial reliance hunting.
“Our overriding objective since inception has been conservation. Hunting has been a robust management and economic tool in a logistically remote region where the traditional photographic safari has struggled to take hold. It’s still our intention to focus solely on conservation but we need secure multi-year donor funding to do so. Wildlife needs three things to flourish – food, water and protection. Conservation needs one more thing – reliable and consistent funding’
“As a conservationist it has become a rare privilege to work on this scale and open and develop a conservation concession from scratch. There is still a lot of work to do, but the potential is astounding. It would be great if Niassa became a better known reserve – simply having more focus offers protection of its own.”
“I hope we can hold on long enough for Niassa to receive more attention and for more hands to come on board to help us protect wildlife and the space it depends upon. The options for scale in conservation are rapidly disappearing.”
For further information on Luwire and the Niassa Reserve or to visit Luwire, please visit www.luwire.org or email Niassa’s London based Chairman on firstname.lastname@example.org
Tax effective and tax deductible donations are highly valued and much appreciated . One hundred percent of all donations shall be directed to conservation. They can be made to Luwire’s UK and US foundations via www.luwire.org