A brave new drive to protect an iconic paradise

Simon Espley
Friday, 2 June 2017

“Are we seriously landing there?” The Cessna Caravan was heading towards a massive rocky dome, and what appeared to be a short dirt track in a dense sea of woodland. But, as we skimmed over a wide sandy riverbed, the track morphed into a landing strip. We bumped down and taxied to a halt. Paradise found.

This landscape leaves me speechless. ‘Jurassic’ is possibly the best way of describing it. Yet, there is so much more to it than that. There is a powerful presence here, a heady blend of raw fecundity and ancient whispers that sets this vast landscape apart. This is how Africa used to be, before she was colonised and reshaped.

This was my second visit to paradise. I was here to assist a special group of conservationists who are preserving the largest concession within Niassa National Reserve for the Mozambican people.

The sandy Lugenda riverbed becomes a raging torrent during the wet season of December to April ©Will Burrard-Lucas

Stepping out of the Cessna and into the baking November heat, we were met by Director of Conservation and Law Enforcement Derek Littleton and his able team. Later that evening, Derek explained to our film and photographic crew that Niassa Wilderness is a privately-managed concession within the Niassa National Reserve, comprising over 10 percent of the entire reserve.

The logistical realities of patrolling such a vast area are immense, especially during the rainy season when large parts of the reserve are flooded, making them inaccessible to all but determined poachers. During our brief visit, we came to appreciate how difficult the task is. This is illustrated by the plight of the elephants in the massive and remote 42,000 km² Niassa National Reserve. Rampant commercial poaching has caused elephant populations across the reserve to plummet by more than 70 percent. In 2012 there were 12,000 elephants here; in 2016 only 3,500 remained.

At 4,450 km² the newly named Niassa Wilderness is the largest of 17 concessions in the national reserve. It hosts 20 percent of the entire elephant population, and the largest number of intact breeding herds and mature bulls.

There are an estimated 350 wild dogs in Niassa National Reserve, a significant portion of the approximately 6 600 adult wild dogs remaining in Africa ©Will Burrard-Lucas

The Big Change

In 2000, Niassa Wilderness (then called Lugenda Wildlife Reserve, or ‘Luwire’) became the first concession in the reserve to be allocated and then funded by a private investor. Since then, it has operated as a responsible trophy hunting concession.

A luxury photographic tourism lodge, Lugenda Wilderness Camp, was built in 2006 but closed at the end of 2015 in order to focus on anti-poaching efforts. It now serves as Niassa Wilderness HQ and as a venue for hosting donors and media teams. Due to the increase in elephant poaching, all elephant trophy hunting was voluntarily brought to a halt from 2012.

To read more about Niassa Wilderness, continue reading below the advert

The new Board of Directors has decided to phase out all hunting and to source funds from donors to fund anti-poaching efforts instead. The new funding model ensures authentic community inclusion and also that 100 percent of donor funding will go into conservation and community activities. The Board of Directors serves on a voluntary basis, and advice and assistance is drawn from a network of similarly philanthropic professionals.

Lugenda Wilderness Camp, formerly operated as a luxury photographic tourism lodge, now serves as Niassa Wilderness HQ and a venue for the hosting of major donors and media teams ©Will Burrard-Lucas

One warm evening around the campfire, Derek explained the added level of complexity that makes this task so difficult. There are about 35,000 people living in 40 villages inside the national reserve. Niassa Wilderness incorporates seven of those villages.

These isolated people have no access to jobs and have historically eked out a subsistence lifestyle from the bush. They fish, gather honey and hunt for bushmeat, skins and ivory. They also grow tobacco and food crops, which are raided daily by wild animals. Villagers are frequently attacked, and sometimes killed, by crocodiles, hippos, elephants and lions.

In short, wildlife for these people represents either food or danger. Therein lies the conservation challenge. And, now that poaching has moved beyond subsistence levels into commercial operations, the challenge is exponentially bigger.

Community education is a vital aspect of the Niassa Wilderness strategy ©Black Bean Productions

There are 40 villages within the reserve, including seven within Niassa Wilderness ©Black Bean Productions

As we listened to a lion groan from somewhere in the pitch darkness, Derek remarked that he has a team of only 40 anti-poaching staff. That’s one person for every 11,250 hectares. To even begin to assert themselves on poachers, he’ll need a minimum crew of 75 people – one for every 6,000 hectares. This stark statistic puts the situation and his ambitions into sharp relief.

Trophy hunting in the concession has been strictly controlled and sustainably managed. It used to serve the vital role of preventing all but subsistence poaching. But, even a well-run hunting operation has been powerless to prevent the rampant commercial poaching that has hammered elephant populations in recent years. Derek and his team now plan to increase the level of protection activities significantly. They also want to involve communities in the drive to purge the reserve of poachers.

To read more about plans for Niassa Wilderness, continue reading below the advert

The need for more military-style protection was driven home to me during a lengthy drive along rutted dirt roads to visit one of the seven villages within the concession. Brian Johnson, who manages the current trophy hunting activities, was at the wheel. I asked him why hunting is better than photographic tourism in keeping poachers at bay.

“Look,” he said bluntly, “a bunch of macho hunters packing 375s is a bigger threat to poachers than a carload of tourists packing Nikons.

There you have it.

An anti-poaching ranger keeps vigil for signs of poacher activity ©Black Bean Productions

Inselbergs dot the landscape, thrusting through the dense sea of deciduous ‘miombo’ woodland that covers much of the area ©Will Burrard-Lucas

One evening, I was enjoying a spectacular African sunset on the banks of the Lugenda River with the new Niassa Wilderness CEO Greg Reis, a trusted and valued friend of long standing. He shared his hopes for the future with me.

“We’re phasing out hunting in favour of donor funding,” said Greg. “And we’ve made the communities and wildlife the beneficiaries of the trust. Our entire team, from the Board of Directors to management and dedicated hard-working anti-poaching rangers, has made the decision to be on the right side of history, to put Niassa before short term monetary gain.”

He paused. “Now, surely, is the time for the anti-hunting fraternity to get behind this brave project. This is one of Africa’s last true wilderness areas, with excellent intact habitat. But, the wildlife is suffering under the massive pressures of poaching.

“We need funds to bring more local people from our communities onto the right side, to give them reason to protect wild animals and their environment. It’s time to move beyond words, it’s time to make a real difference.”

Perhaps one day Niassa too will offer adventurous travellers the opportunity to experience true African wilderness. Until then, the brave and visionary Niassa Wilderness team will hold the fort. Will you help them? A luta continua!

View the video of ‘Niassa Reserve: A Prehistoric Wilderness’ below

Elephant populations in the reserve have been decimated by commercial poaching ©Black Bean Productions


Niassa Wilderness would not be possible without the vision and significant investment of Adel Aujan, a Saudi Arabian businessman who fell in love with Niassa. He was the first to sign up for an initial 25-year lease on the concession, and to invest in the reserve. Aujan passed away in January 2017, but his family continues to support Niassa Wilderness.


The Mozambican government manages its protected areas via the National Conservation Areas Authority (ANAC), which provides the legal framework for conservation activities in Niassa.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), working closely with ANAC, has overall management responsibility for Niassa Reserve and amongst other things provides vital coordination between the various concession holders in the reserve.

Vast wild areas like Niassa are best managed in close collaboration with neighbours who will support you while you do the same for them. Niassa Wilderness continues to work closely in partnership with neighbouring Niassa Reserve properties Mariri and Chuilexi, a formal alliance established from 2016, that serves all parties well.

Anti-poaching patrols have to cover vast areas of inhospitable terrain, often scaling the heights of inselbergs to gain a vantage point ©Will Burrard-Lucas

Niassa Wilderness Director of Conservation and Law Enforcement Derek Littleton on aerial patrol in his trusted Bat Hawk, an essential anti-poaching tool ©Will Burrard-Lucas



Niassa National Reserve: 42,000 km² / 4,2 million hectares. (Twice the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.)

Niassa Wilderness (concession within the reserve): 4,450 km² / 445,000 hectares.


Northern Mozambique, bordering Tanzania.


Miombo woodland, granite inselbergs, open savannah, wetlands, river floodplains and riverine forest.


350 African wild dogs (significant in relation to the global population of an estimated 6,600 adults).

Endemic species: Niassa wildebeest, Boehm’s zebra, and Johnston’s impala.

Elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard, hippo, crocodile, sable antelope, Lichtenstein hartebeest, Livingstone’s eland, common reedbuck, klipspringer and others.

Over 400 bird species.


The best way to access Niassa is via a charter flight from the coastal town of Pemba, in far northern Mozambique. Pemba is also the best international airport for access to many of northern Mozambique’s paradise islands.

Simon Espley flew with Airlink into Pemba from Johannesburg, South Africa. Airlink offers flights to many destinations across Southern Africa, including direct flights to certain lodges in the Kruger National Park.


For further information and to provide financial support to Niassa Wilderness, visit the Niassa Wilderness website

View a gallery of photographs of Niassa Wilderness here.


Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. He travels extensively in Africa, seeking wilderness, real people and elusive birds.



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