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News from Niassa: A family in the wild

“Some people feel the rain, others just get wet” Bob Dylan

We like to feel the rain. We also sometimes get wet, as for nine months of the year we sleep in a Mozzie dome tent on a platform under a sausage tree In Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique.

We’ve been here for nine years running the Niassa Carnivore Project, which aims to secure large carnivores, mainly lions, here.

We work in collaboration with the Mozambican management authority (SRN).

“We” are Keith and I, our two kids Ella (4), Finn (2) and our amazing local Mozambican team – Jomba, Euzebio, Pedro, Oscar, Baptista, Francisco and Joaquim. You will hopefully get to know us, our project and more about this incredible place as we go along. I am not going to bore you with too many details now. I would prefer to introduce you slowly, Africa time.

For me, wilderness is a strange thing, it is about a great expanse of space, but it is also about the details – the distant roar of lions at night, spoor covering a road in the morning, the absence of lights, the smells of the seasons as different trees and plants bloom. Right now, the sausage tree is losing its old leaves and spouting new ones. It all happens in a week and it always happens the first weeks of September. Then the flower will come and the bats. At the same time the warthog piglets arrive. Every year I record the first time I see piglets, it is always between the 1st and 4th of September. For nine years they have never missed. I wait for them, these small things that happen and tell you the season is changing. So far I can count on them. It gives me some sense of security that all is well, life goes on.

Niassa captures your heart. Some people here call it a disease, but it is more like an addiction. Once you’ve spent a bit of time here, you just can’t leave, even though sometimes I want to, as the complexities drive me mad. How did we spend nine years here? I don’t know.

I regularly throw up my hands and despair “that’s it, no more, we can’t secure this place, and we aren’t having any conservation effect”. I did it yesterday, threw my toys out, much like Finn’s regular two year old tantrums of frustration. Too much politics, too many priorities, too many logistical problems, too many sacrifices, too many things breaking, too little time.

Then last night, two lions we don’t know roared right next to camp, buffalo bellowed and a pair of Pels fishing Owl hmmphed till morning. Ella woke up to listen too “Who are those lions Mommy, what are they saying”. Just there, just like that, hope. We haven’t reached out tipping point, neither has Niassa.

It is also the people who keep us here. They are the answer and the challenge. There are 35 000 people from 40 villages living here. It sounds a lot but less than one person per square kilometre. For them Niassa is food, land, fields, water, ancestors, fear, work and just home. Where ever did we get this notion that a place can only be wilderness if there are no people in it, especially in Africa?

 I need you to know about Niassa, I need you to know the details, become obsessed. Mike Faye during the MegaFlyover called it one of the “Last of the Wild” places on earth. This is 42 000 km2 (16 000 square miles, 4 200 000 hectares) of wilderness. It protects most of Mozambique’s wildlife, nearly 1000 lions, more than 350 African wild dogs, 16000 elephants, as well as globally important populations of African Skimmer, Taita falcon etc.

It is true wilderness. Come feel the rain. Niassa the beautiful, frustrating, surprising, mind numbing, challenging…. Niassa in the details

PS. I ‘m giving a talk in the US in San Francisco at the WCN Wildlife Expo on the 1st of October. If you are in the area come and join us www.wildnet.org for more details.

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In 2003, Colleen Begg and her husband Keith started working in the little known Niassa Reserve in Northern Mozambique. Their focus is on promoting the place and coexistence between people and lions, leopards, wild dogs and hyena in this incredible wilderness. They currently live for 8 months of the year in Niassa Reserve with their young children, Ella and Finn. Follow Colleen’s blog posts for updates from the remote corners of Mozambique.

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