A Wildcat Amid the Wild's Big Cats
Thanks to a prestigious fellowship from the World Wildlife Fund, a UA graduate student is working to study and preserve Africa's dwindling lion population.

By Raymond Sanchez, NASA Space Grant intern, University Relations - Communications
Oct. 20, 2014

Lion cubs by Alex Pompe.jpg

Growing up in the Luangwa River Valley in Zambia allowed Thandiwe Mweetwa to live in close proximity to wildlife.
Growing up in the Luangwa River Valley in Zambia allowed Thandiwe Mweetwa to live in close proximity to wildlife. (Photo: Alex Pompe)

Half a world away, in one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, University of Arizona graduate student Thandiwe Mweetwa is hard at work preserving Africa’s dwindling population of lions. The iconic big cats are facing a daunting number of threats across the continent, and global conservation efforts have ramped up to curtail the problem.

Earlier this year, the World Wildlife Fund honored Mweetwa as one of only 26 worldwide recipients of its Russell E. Train Fellowship, a prestigious program that provides professional and financial support to emerging environmental and wildlife conservationists. The fellowship began in recognition of the need for conservation on a global scale and attracts scholars from all over the world. This is the first year that applicants from Zambia, Mweetwa’s country of origin, were considered for the fellowship.

Mweetwa is pursuing a master’s degree in natural resources conservation, with a specialization in wildlife conservation and management. Currently, she is conducting research on prides of lions in the Luangwa River Valley in eastern Zambia. Mweetwa monitors the area’s lion population, the size of each pride and the population’s reproductive activity.

Growing up in the region shaped Mweetwa's passion for wildlife conservation at a young age. After she graduated from high school, she traveled to Canada to earn her bachelor’s degree in applied animal biology from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

During her summer breaks, Mweetwa came home to work with the Zambian Carnivore Program, an organization dedicated to preserving large carnivore species and the ecosystems that support them.

"Growing up in the Luangwa River Valley in Zambia allowed me to live in close proximity to wildlife," she said. "I was very aware of the different environmental issues affecting large carnivores, and my internships at the Zambian Carnivore Program during breaks from university highlighted the importance of lions to our ecosystem.

"On my first day on the job with the program, we got within 20 meters of a coalition of four young males, and I heard them roaring up close for the first time," she said. "It’s one of the most amazing sounds I have ever heard."

Lion populations are on a rapid decline. The past 20 years have seen a reduction of about 30 percent in the number of lions in the wild. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that nearly 400,000 lions existed in the wild in 1950; today, there may be as few as 21,000 on the African continent.

The Luangwa River Valley has long been a popular location for hunting lions and other large predators. In January 2013, the Zambian government imposed a ban on hunting the big cats. Since the ban, researchers such as Mweetwa have gained a greater understanding of the impact on lion populations and the steps needed to preserve them.

"Thandiwe is collecting critical data needed to assess what factors might be important to maintaining the lion population," said Dave Christianson, assistant professor at the UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment – part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – and a mentor to Mweetwa. "We need to understand the status of these populations."

Mutual involvement in the Zambian Carnivore Program brought about collaboration between Mweetwa and Christianson, who studies the dynamics between large predators and their prey in his own research. Last January, Mweetwa relocated to Tucson to begin graduate studies with Christianson.

"She’s very bright," Christianson said. "Between the University and the contribution of the Russell E. Train Fellowship, she’s found quite a bit of support here."

Asked about the move from Zambia to Tucson, Mweetwa said that the transition has been smooth.

"The main difference is that when I’m in Tucson, I have fast, reliable Internet," she said. "In terms of the weather, Tucson and the Luangwa Valley are pretty similar. It wasn’t difficult for me to get used to my new environment."

Christianson emphasized that Mweetwa’s commitment extends to educating the public about the importance of her work.

"Thandiwe does a lot of outreach to local schools in the community to update them about what’s going on with the lion population," Christianson said. "She provides everything from basic general education to the public, to high-level analysis relevant to local policy makers."

Mweetwa hopes to expand the scope of her work to other parts of Zambia that may offer a better habitat for the lion population. Her efforts exemplify the mission statement of the Russell E. Train Education for Nature Program, according to Andrea Santy, the program’s director.

"The program plays an important role in increasing the number of highly trained conservationists working in WWF priority areas throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America," Santy said. "Ms. Mweetwa was selected because of her outstanding potential as a young leader, and the importance of her research on lions in Zambia."

Mweetwa and Christianson highlighted the importance of public awareness for their mission to succeed — and the value of bringing international perspectives to the UA.

"Our program focuses on training the next generation of wildlife conservationists," Christianson said. "When the University is able to recruit great students who are involved in conservation research at the international level, it brings a diverse perspective to our community. It adds a lot to the kind of experience we can offer students — both to Thandiwe and everyone else on campus."

Mweetwa wants people to know that staying informed on issues involving the lion populations, and conservation efforts in general, goes a long way in supporting conservation research.

"Lions are an iconic species that should not be allowed to slip into extinction," she said. "The threats they’re facing are increasing all over the African continent, and reducing the negative impacts of these threats requires a global response. Academic communities and the public have an important role to play in this."