Chicago Zoological Society Honors Wildlife Conservation Leaders

It's estimated that there were some 450,000 lions in the wild in Africa in 1950. Since then, habitat loss, poaching and a market in Asia for lion parts and trinkets has decimated the population. Today, just 20,000 lions remain across the continent.

“More than 50 percent of the lion populations hold less than 50 individuals, and only six populations have a thousand individuals,” said Colleen Begg, managing director and cofounder of the Niassa Lion Project in Northern Mozambique. “So it is very serious, and it is going to require a lot of collaboration to recover the lions to a meaningful number that we can be assured of their survival.”

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Begg and her husband, Keith, founded the project in 2003. Initially they had just one local staff member, but now more than 100 Mozambicans work for the project, many of whom live inside the Niassa Reserve.

Getting locals to buy into the conservation goals of the project has been critical to its development and success.

“They are the custodians of the lion population, and so we spend a lot of time listening to what they need,” said Begg. “Our approach has been to make them equal partners in the management of conservation areas inside the protected areas, as well as to provide them with education, health care and food security.”

The project also works on ways to help locals protect themselves from the threat of lions.

“It's not easy living with wildlife; they kill livestock and can kill people,” said Begg.

Colleen and Keith Begg (Courtesy Colleen Begg) Colleen and Keith Begg (Courtesy Colleen Begg)

The Niassa Reserve, which is the largest protected area in Mozambique and is roughly double the size of Massachusetts, contains one of the largest lion populations on the continent.

“We have 800-1,000 lions there, so it's one of the most significant populations remaining in Africa,” said Begg. “The population increased until 2015 and is now starting to decline largely because of the increasing threats from the illegal wildlife trade.”

Begg said that while the government of Mozambique is generally supportive of their efforts, lion conservation is not at the top of the list for what is the fourth poorest country in the world.

“They have many [funding] priorities, so the funding for conservation efforts needs to come from the international community,” said Begg.

One man assisting on that front is former tech entrepreneur Charles Knowles, president and cofounder of the Wildlife Conservation Network.

Knowles said he created the WCN after becoming “disillusioned” with many of the wildlife groups he was supporting financially.

“They weren’t transparent in terms of where your money was going and the impact it was having,” Knowles said. “They weren’t efficient in terms of getting the money to the field, and they weren’t highly collaborative. So I set up the Wildlife Conservation Network to address those needs.”

The Niassa Reserve in Mozambique (Courtesy Colleen Begg)The Niassa Reserve in Mozambique (Courtesy Colleen Begg)

The group now has 17 core partners working on everything from elephants to penguins and, of course, lions.

“Someone could pick one of these partners who are based in the field and we'll ensure that 100 percent of the money gets there and is impactful,” said Knowles.

He describes the WCN as “a venture capital fund for wildlife” and said that he has taken the lessons he learned in Silicon Valley and applied them to conservation.

“I believe if you have the right people on the right problem with the right strategy and support them and get out of their way that they can do incredible things,” said Knowles. “That's the model that venture capital runs on in Silicon Valley, and that's the model I adapted. Which was finding people like Colleen and the other incredible conservationists we support who have the right strategies and who are passionate and focused on the right problems and give them the support they need to be successful and get out of their way.” 

Begg is in Chicago to pick up the George B. Rabb Conservation Medal from the Chicago Zoological Society, while Knowles was awarded the Edith Rockefeller McCormick Partnership Award.

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