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Cycle 8 (2019 Deadline)

Understanding interactions between people, elephants and fires in the miombo woodlands of Niassa National Reserve in support of biodiversity conservation action

PI: Natasha Ribeiro (, Eduardo Mondlane University
U.S. Partner: Fernando Sedano, University of Maryland, College Park
Project Dates: November 2019 - February 2022

Project Overview:
8-173 Field Work
The team conducts fieldwork at the reserve (photo courtesy of Dr. Ribeiro).
The miombo woodlands are the most extensive ecosystem in southern Africa, representing an important repository of biodiversity and providing critical goods and services for about 80% of both rural and urban populations in the area. Their ecology is largely determined by a combination of soils, climate, and disturbances, such as fire and herbivory by elephants. The Niassa National Reserve (NNR) is the largest protected area in Mozambique, supporting extensive miombo woodlands and the largest elephant population in the country. About 60,000 people in the area depend on forest resources, relying on fire as a management tool. The interactive role of elephants and fires in miombo ecology in the NNR has been addressed through a research program established in 2004 by the Forest Engineering Department at Eduardo Mondlane University. Nevertheless, there are still remaining questions about the links between people, fires, and elephants. The goal of this PEER-supported study is to improve our understanding about the interaction between people, fires, elephants, and habitat in support of management actions to counteract the downward trend in elephant population due to poaching. To achieve their scientific goal, the PI Dr. Ribeiro and her team will use an innovative approach that combines natural and social sciences mixed methods. They will integrate ground and aerial observations with multisensory and multitemporal remote sensing data to map, analyze, and characterize miombo habitats for elephants. Their multi-disciplinary and international research team includes experts in miombo woodlands dynamics, a remote sensing expert with considerable experience in developing degradation assessment tools, a conservation biologist with expertise in elephant dynamics, a social scientist with field experience in assessing human population influences on land use and ecosystem change, and, importantly, members of the NNR management team. Their research outputs will include facilitating access to remote sensing data, mapping tools, and technical capacity building in the country. The mapping tool produced in this study will be made available to the reserve authorities to quickly access changes in habitat distribution and quality and ultimately, improve adaptive management actions. The project will also contribute to enhancing national critical thinking by providing scholarships and involving local communities in management activities.

This study is also aligned with Mozambique's international commitments to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 15, Life on Land, including protecting and restoring terrestrial ecosystems, stopping ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss, and facilitating adherence to multiple international conventions. The Five-Year Government Program (PQG, 2015-2019) recognizes the sustainable and transparent management of natural resources as one of the five priority areas for the country’s socioeconomic development. As a result, the National Administration of Conservation Areas has declared research as one of the priorities to support adaptive management of PAs. USAID has played a key role in supporting Mozambique in achieving sustainable management of natural resources, and its tourism and biodiversity program is key in building on the Government’s commitment to increase tourism and to enforce conservation laws. This PEER study also responds to the programmatic goals of the research team’s implementing partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), for reducing poaching and elephant-human conflicts in the NNR. The study contributes to these goals by addressing one key issue that is currently not addressed—habitat distribution mapping and characterization of fire occurrence as it influences elephant movement. Successful completion of the planned research will allow the improvement of decision-making on management actions, such as controlled early burning, fire prevention, and elephant corridor conservation, as well as patrolling activities in areas where elephants are most likely to be at different times of the year. In addition, understanding local knowledge on fire management and elephant movements will contribute to an integrative management approach.

Summary of Recent Activities

Due to the COVID-19, the research team has been working on desktop work namely: preparing the questionnaire for the interviews and focus groups of discussion and the analysis of fires, elephant movements and vegetation. The IRB process has been discussed among the team members. Additionally, preparations of the RS lab (acquisition of equipment and refurbishing) have initiated during the period. Acquisition of additional equipment for the field work have been initiated.

Given the situation it is almost impossible to make any plans. However, the research team is preparing the desktop work to be ready for the field data collection as soon as the situation improves and WCS policy allows traveling around the Niassa Reserve. An abstract do AGU fall conference is being prepared, the meeting will be online.

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