Mention northern Mozambique to people and their perceptions are that it’s somewhere just past Tete. Little do they realise that the country extends for another 600 kilometres to the north! This area is not well known at all by Zimbabweans, who usually tend to holiday around the south of the country. However, there is a place in northern Mozambique, seldom visited by the average tourist. It is as remote as it is wild, and is as vast as it is savagely beautiful. It is the spectacular, 42,000 square kilometre Niassa National Reserve (NNR).
The NNR was founded in 1954 and only received formal status and protection after the civil war ended and the peace accords were signed in Rome in 1992. Some sources cite formal protection only really materialised as late as 1998. What is known is that back in the 50s the Reserve was much larger than it is today, having sadly diminished over the years. However, in its present state it is still larger than Wales and Denmark. The resource-strapped Mozambican government, realising the complexities in managing so vast an ecosystem, initially entered into a management agreement with SDGRN (Sociedade para a Gestão e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa) in the early 2000s and then switched to the World Conservation Society (WCS) in late 2012. WCS is responsible for the anti-poaching duties, community projects and day-to-day management of the Reserve. The Reserve is split into the 22,000 square kilometre core area and the 20,000 square kilometre buffer zone. The NNR is vast and difficult to both police and manage from a logistical and anti-poaching stand point and for that reason, these essential tasks have been devolved to conservation-minded entities and businesses that have tendered for concessions in the buffer zones surrounding the core area. At present, there are a handful of ethical hunting companies, philanthropists, researchers and business tycoons who have taken it upon themselves to offer the support and protection that this amazing ecosystem represents and needs.
The Niassa Reserve is off the beaten track. In fact, that could be considered a serious understatement. To safari here is to go where very few have travelled before. There are few roads, little infrastructure, and endless horizons of miombo woodland. It is miles from anywhere but in that remoteness lies its beauty. It is characterised by rugged granite inselbergs, seasonal wetlands called ‘pantanals’ and countless dry riverine-choked stream beds that drain the miombo. The animal communities are diverse and on the increase after Mozambique’s long-running and bloody civil war. The area is noted for its regional endemics, most notably Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest, Roosevelt Sable (estimated at 12,000 odd), Niassa Wildebeest and Johnston’s Impala. Four of the big five call the Niassa Reserve home, with an estimated 800 – 1,000 lions still roaming freely. Elephant, once numerous and numbering in the thousands, have suffered under a wave of organised slaughter by poaching syndicates. Their number has dwindled despite courageous efforts by resident anti-poaching teams. Cape Buffalo, thought to be around 6,000, are increasing every year, with herds of up to 250 seen often. Leopard, although rarely seen, are thriving in the Reserve. One of Africa’s most endangered and much-maligned carnivores, the Wild Dog, is flourishing in the Niassa. There are an estimated 350 – 400 of these carnivores in the Reserve. Up until 15 years ago, this population was not known to exist. This makes the Niassa Wild Dog population a globally significant one, considering they are 7% of the global total of roughly 5,000. To give it further perspective, the Niassa Reserve has the same number, if not more Wild Dogs than the whole of South Africa!
Without a doubt, Niassa is a unique ecotone in that it represents both southern and eastern African wildlife species and habitat. It is also blessed with diverse avian fauna. Bird counts in the early 2000s estimated 400 bird species in the reserve. Species that will get most ‘twitchers’ hearts racing include Steirlings Woodpeckers, Taita Falcons, African Skimmers, Western Banded Snake Eagles and African Pittas to name but a few of the rarities and ‘Lifers’ that one can add to their lists. It’s not just the well-known iconic animals and birds that are well represented in Niassa. The herptofauna is making waves in scientific circles, as shown by the recent discovery of the endemic Mecula Girdled Lizard. Little is known about the amphibians and reptiles of this area (never mind the insect life!), necessitating further research in what is being widely regarded as one of the last true wildernesses left in Africa.
The Rio Rovuma forms the Reserve’s northern boundary with Tanzania, and countless other tributaries, big and small, criss-cross this rugged and unforgiving landscape. One of these, the Rio Lugenda, which is arguably the lifeblood of the Reserve, sluggishly meanders north-eastwards, through the heart of the NNR until it meets the Rovuma. On this scenic river, nestled in the inselbergs for which this reserve is so famous, lies the one and only photographic lodge and area in the Niassa. Formerly known as the Lugenda Wilderness Reserve (LUWIRE), it has now been rebranded as Niassa Wilderness. Founded in 2000 by a philanthropic Arab businessman and run for the last 18 years by Zimbabwean conservationist Derek Littleton, this company has been at the forefront of Mozambican conservation and the effort to combat wildlife poaching in this unique landscape. Derek’s responsibilities include the caretaking of over a million acres of wilderness, and all the associated plant and animal communities living with in this threatened habitat. At the time of writing, the anti-poaching element in the Niassa Wilderness (LUWIRE) number around 40 scouts, augmented with the use of a Bat Hawk ultra-light reconnaissance aircraft to perform aerial patrols. Their duties are varied and thankless and fraught with hardship and danger. From conducting anti-poaching foot patrols over vast expanses of miombo, rounding up illegal timber cutters and stopping illegal small-scale mining along the tributaries of the rivers, the scouts in the Niassa Wilderness, and the NNR as a whole, are faced with a myriad of challenges daily. The problems are further exacerbated by the fact that there are 40,000 people living with in the Niassa National Reserve, generally confined to small towns and villages.
The Niassa Wilderness Lodge is scenically sited under spreading sycamore fig trees on the Lugenda River bank, and it is common to see three different species of primate in one day strolling through the camp environs. Yellow Baboons, Simango Monkeys and Vervet Monkeys relish the figs when in fruit and keep one entertained for hours as they play in amongst the tents. Not only the primates favour the abundance of fruit; elephant too make daily visits to the camp and it is not unlike running the gauntlet if one decides to return to their tent when the cow herds are in camp! Birdlife is prolific to say the least and some of the best sightings can be had in camp, binoculars and steaming mug of tea in hand. Every December, the African Pittas make a long-awaited appearance. They are often seen performing their courtship rituals in the thick bush between the client tents – a jewelled rarity indeed, and one that has had serious birders from far afield flocking to this wonderful camp. Despite the action just around the lodge, the best is to be had on foot with a guide walking amongst the ancient inselbergs of this beautiful area, or exploring the concession by 4×4. Elephant, buffalo, Niassa Wildebeest, eland, waterbuck, lion and sable to name but a few can be encountered, all thanks to the tireless efforts and ethical, dedicated custodianship of a few conservation-minded people.
Across most of Southern Africa, ivory poaching has reached new levels most of us would scarcely believe possible. As mentioned earlier, Niassa has not been exempt from this scourge. However, committed people in the NNR remain steadfast in their resolve to combat this wildlife crime and ensure wild populations not only survive, but thrive in this wonderful reserve for future generations to appreciate.
It is not easy to get to Niassa, but well worth the journey if you do. It is off the beaten track – wild, remote and very beautiful. It is without a doubt the Africa of yesteryear.
The Niassa Wilderness Lodge is situated in concession L7 of the Niassa National Reserve (NNR). It is the biggest and longest-run, ethically-managed area in the NNR. The lodge comprises eight East African style well-appointed tents with luxurious ablutions en-suite. There is a stone and thatch dining room and lounge area with a well-stocked library. Walking and canoe safaris can be organised with a local guide, as well as traversing the area in a 4×4 vehicle.