One of Africa’s last great wilderness areas has just celebrated an extraordinary landmark – an entire year during which not a single elephant has been recorded killed by poachers. In the context of the savage onslaught that has seen literally thousands of these magnificent animals slaughtered for their ivory in recent years, this is a remarkable statistic.

Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve covers over four million hectares of miombo woodland, meandering rivers and majestic inselbergs. On the ground, it is difficult to comprehend Niassa’s magnitude. From the air, the bigger picture emerges; it takes one and a half hours to cross the reserve in a light aircraft. Niassa harbours an estimated 40% of Mozambique’s entire elephant population, not to mention impressive numbers of sable antelope, Cape buffalo and numerous other species characteristic of this landscape.

Spectacular herds of herbivores are just one feature of a tapestry that is rich in wildlife. The reserve is also one of the most important refuges on the entire continent for two of Africa’s most charismatic – and seriously threatened – carnivores: the lion and wild dog.

Aerial view of Niassa featuring the inselbergs characteristic of this landscape. Credit: JABRUSON
Aerial view of Niassa featuring the inselbergs characteristic of this landscape. Credit: JABRUSON

Ironically, it is the very scale of this landscape that poses one of the greatest threats to the long-term survival of the wildlife it supports. The effective conservation management of an area the size of Denmark presents enormous logistical difficulties. The recent resurgence in the demand for ivory and consequent explosion in poaching activity – which reached a peak in 2017-18 in Niassa – has exacerbated that problem.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is among the many conservation organisations that have been supporting Niassa – and working with the impoverished communities whose livelihoods depend on the reserve’s natural resources – for a number of years. A painstaking rehabilitation process begun in 2002 saw us make tremendous strides in halting the decline in the reserve’s wildlife populations after years of conservation neglect.

By 2012, it looked as though Niassa was beginning to turn a corner. This proved to be a false dawn, however. A sudden, exponential rise in ivory poaching and a surge in illegal mining and logging activity threatened to undermine a decade of conservation achievement.

Bull elephant in Niassa slaughtered for its ivory by poachers equipped with AK-47 assault rifles. Credit: JABRUSON
Bull elephant in Niassa slaughtered for its ivory by poachers equipped with AK-47 assault rifles. Credit: JABRUSON

Swift intervention was required to safeguard the future of Niassa’s elephants and the reserve’s other remarkable biodiversity. As plans were being drawn up to split Niassa into different zones, FFI took the strategic decision to secure a key area of the reserve situated at the coalface of the poaching threat and home to the most significant concentrations of wildlife. Chuilexi Conservancy was the result.

Formed from three adjoining tourism concessions, Chuilexi Conservancy is critical to the survival of Niassa’s wildlife. This ‘reserve within a reserve’ is a huge area in its own right, covering well over half a million hectares. It was carefully chosen for investment by FFI to ensure maximum conservation impact by protecting the highest densities of wildlife within the most severely threatened part of Niassa as a whole.

But Chuilexi is just one piece in the overall jigsaw. In an area as vast as Niassa, working collaboratively across all the concessions is the only way to achieve meaningful conservation success at the big picture level.

This incredible zero-casualty count over a 12-month period is a tribute to the collective efforts of all partners involved in safeguarding a crucial population of the world’s largest land mammal. In partnership with the National Administration for Conservation Areas, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society has played a key role in this respect.

The groundbreaking achievement also owes a great deal to political will and, in particular, the direct intervention of Mozambican President Felipe Nyusi. He personally authorised the deployment of a rapid intervention police force, which has led to the dramatic turnaround in Niassa’s fortunes and raised hopes that the elephant population may actually recover.

Elephant herd in Niassa. Credit: Joe Heffernan/FFI
Elephant herd in Niassa. Credit: Joe Heffernan/FFI

After visiting the reserve in November 2018, President Nyusi approved the presence of special forces for a further year, during which they will continue to work hand in hand with rangers and provide them with training in the skills and techniques needed to combat poaching in the longer term.

Rob Harris, FFI’s country manager in Mozambique, is cautiously optimistic: “It feels as though a tipping point has been reached thanks to the combination of high-level government support and the steady strengthening of anti-poaching activities over many years. Together this has acted as a successful deterrent to elephant poaching and we are now seeing very promising results.”

Nevertheless, continued vigilance will be required to ensure that the ever-present threats to Niassa are kept at bay: “The indications are that issues remain with lions and other iconic species, so the combination of national-level support and on-the-ground effort must be maintained to improve the situation for all wildlife, and to keep elephant poaching at zero.”