Conservation planning for Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique: a collaboration between WCS Mozambiqu

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is currently managing the Niassa National Reserve (NNR) in Northern Mozambique. It is an ambitious project with the potential to make a significant and lasting contribution to African conservation, however the challenges are immense. WCS is currently developing an updated management plan for Niassa Reserve, and teamed up with Green Fire Science (GFS), who have been providing technical and scientific support for the planning process. This work is part of my (James Allan's) PhD research, and has been predominantly supported by Assoc Prof James Watson and Dr Maina Mbui. It is an example of GFS's efforts to work between academia and management, ensuring that our research is relevant to on the ground conservation.

Niassa National Reserve is one of the largest and most spectacular wilderness areas surviving in Africa. It covers 42,300 square kilometers of predominantly intact Miombo woodland and holds Mozambiques largest populations of Lions, Elephants, Wild Dogs and Roosevelts Sable. It also contains many endemic antelope sub-species such as Niassa Wildebeest, Niassa Zebra and Johnsons Impala. The defining features of the landscape are the massive granite inselbergs which protrude from the Miombo. If conserved and well managed, the reserve could be a long term driver of economic growth in region as well as a key natural resource supporting local livelihoods.

The conservation potential of NNR is incredible, however it is becoming increasingly threatened by human pressures. It is home to over 40,000 people who practice slash and burn agriculture and utilize the natural resources in the reserve. Many of their land-uses are not compatible with conservation, for example artisanal gold mining with mercury is poisoning the river systems, and snaring for bush meat is increasing as the human population rapidly grows. The law of the land in NNR is the management plan, which outlines how resources are governed and where certain practices are allowed. The previous management plan has expired and is out of touch with the times, so one of WCS priorities since taking over management has been to developing a new, stakeholder driven plan, including a zonation, to guide the management of the reserve.

I first traveled to Niassa in October 2015 where I spent a month working with Rob Craig, one of NNR's directors, to instigate the planning process and work out how GFS could contribute. We essentially did a road trip around the reserve and interviewed many of the key NNR stakeholders getting them to discuss and map the values, threats and conservation priorities for the reserve. The region is incredibly data poor, and expert opinion provided most of the data. What was missing was some spatially explicit, quantitative data on human land use and habitat conversion to serve as a baseline for a zonation, and to be combined with expert knowledge.

Back at the University of Queensland, and in collaboration with James Watson and Dr Maina Mbui, I analysed forest loss across Northern Mozambique over the years 2000 - 2012. Forest loss is a measure of habitat conversion, and shows where the ecological state of the environment is being modified by humans. To analyse this I used high resolution (30 square meter) maps of forest cover change through time. The results for Northern Mozambique were staggering showing massive amounts of land clearing across the region. More than 5000 square kilometres of forest was lost amounting to more than 5% of the land area, which is additional to the land already cleared. Inside NNR land clearing was considerably lower with a few hundred kilometres being cleared (<1%), but ongoing in a protected area nonetheless. This clearly highlighted the importance of NNR in preserving Miombo biodiversity as the greater region becomes increasingly degraded and it becomes an important refuge. The forest loss within NNR was confined to two main areas: around a large town called Mavago which is expanding in the west of the reserve, and along the Meculla-Mussoma corridor, a main road in the centre of the reserve, which has the potential to cut the reserve in two. Important data for decision makers, planners, and to feed into the zonations for the reserve.

The next step in the project was the "multi-stakeholder management plan initiation workshop", held in NNR in June 2016, which was brilliantly facilitated by Guillermo Placci from Foundations of Success, which I helped co-facilitate. The stakeholders present were incredibly diverse with hunters, community members, NGO's, government and scientists all sitting around the same tables. We had 60 people attend the workshop and over the course of a week agreed on a common vision for the reserve, the threats, conservation priorities, and also the human development priorities for the area.

The challenge of developing a management plan for NNR is considerable as it goes beyond just conservation planning. With over 40,000 people in the reserve, the management plan is essentially a governance document or constitution for region. Ensuring it is inclusive is essential if it is to be implemented, and the success of this workshop lies in the buy in it generated from all parties. The outputs of the workshop were presented to the provincial governor, include the analyses I worked on at UQ. He spoke incredibly highly of the importance of the reserve to the people of Niassa and future generations, and about how impressed he was with the planning process - he gave WCS full backing and government support to go ahead with the planning and do their best to save Niassa. He also acknowledged the positive role that science was playing in the process.

We have achieved a lot in less than a year but there is no slowing down. Over the next three months expert working groups will be meeting to develop strategies for all the key challenges facing the reserve. I will continue to support the zonation working group as we develop both broad and fine scale zonations for the reserve which will be published in the management plan. The plan will be officially launched in March 2017. This work has been financially supported by a USAID grant to WCS, and many people have played a major role in this project and deserve thanks. The key players on the ground are Rob Craig, Alastair Nelson, Falk Gossman and Kathleen Flower who represent WCS Mozambique, and are putting in huge amounts of effort day in and day out, to ensure Niassa National Reserve is conserved into the future. Check this space for more information as we move forward!

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