National Geographic sat down to talk with 2016 Emerging Explorer and conservationist Thandiwe Mweetwa about dedicating her life to preserving Africa’s disappearing lion population. Having grown up in a small village in Luangwe Valley, Mweetwa didn’t see her first lion until she was an adult. As a team member of the Zambian Carnivore Programme, Mweetwa now works to protect lions and other wildlife through scientific research, animal rescue, and community outreach every day.
National Geographic: Where did you grow up? Can you describe your village?
The wildlife I grew up seeing was mostly the elephants coming into our village, looking for mangoes and getting into our maize fields. And then there’s also baboons, velvet monkeys, small antelope like bushbucks, puku, and impala. I grew up hearing lions, but I never saw any in the village.
National Geographic: How were lions perceived in your village?
Most of the stories in the village were folklore about lions eating people; lions coming behind mud huts, roaring, and then the person inside would go to the bathroom then and there. Or, a house would fall down and a lion would get inside and eat the residents. Most other stories were about how lions wanted to kill just for the sake of it.
National Geographic: Could you tell me about your first experiences with lions?
I first saw a lion up close in 2009 in Nsefu Sector National Park. It was my first day volunteering with the Zambian Carnivore Program, looking for males to collar and monitor. We had calling equipment on the roof of the car playing sounds of dying buffalo and hyenas. We had carcasses to attract lions. Four young males came, they stopped five meters from the car and started to roar. The sounds of the roars made the car shake. My chest, organs, and everything inside were shaking- it was that powerful. Being in the presence of animals like that encouraged me to work with them.
National Geographic: Why is it important for local people to become involved in lion conservation?
It’s so important to have people caring about their local wildlife because they are the people that live with these species, and they are the people that are having the greatest impact on it. If we have to start somewhere, we need to start there. Getting people to see these animals in a different light, getting people to care about them, and hopefully that will inspire different action and interaction with these species. For young Zambians, I’d say careers in the wildlife sector are viable options, there are a lot of opportunities. You can be wildlife rangers, scientists, vets. What is important is realizing it is possible to pursue careers in wildlife-related fields.
National Geographic: What have you done to inspire local children to protect wild animals?
For young children, it’s important to introduce them to wildlife early and just show them these species in a different light. Then they become more compassionate and more responsible when it comes to the interactions they have with these animals. We deliver conservation education programs to children. The aim of these program is to promote interest in wildlife-based careers. Every year, we do year-long projects on topics that are related to carnivores. So it might be stuff to do with the kind of prey these animals eat in the areas that they are found in.
National Geographic: What is it about these programs that inspire children?
Being able to see wildlife in a different setting makes kids care more about these species. We go out with the students and collect scientific data with GPSs, compasses, binoculars, and rangefinders. The students love going into the park. It’s always a wonderful opportunity for them to see wildlife in their natural habitat. It’s a learning experience for them, it is a good way of getting local people involved in conservation. It makes them aware of the variety of problems that exist and what they can do about them. I think it’s a great thing.
National Geographic: What advice would you have for kids all over the world who want to do something hands-on for lions?
For young people living in different parts of the world, there’s a lot you can do. Learning about all the different problems that lions are facing and talking about those problems with other people, spreading the message, helping inspire action to the protection of these species, are all things you can do. I’m very hopeful for the upcoming generation. They will grow up empowered. They will grow up aware of the different opportunities that exist in the wildlife sector. They will acquire skills that will help them move forward in their careers, or for more education.
National Geographic: How would you personally feel if there were no more lions in Zambia?
If there were no more lions in Zambia, it would be a sad day. The landscape would be a whole different scene. The challenge, especially as it relates to getting people to care, is they’re just really, really amazing species to see. The sounds they make, there’s nothing like it out in the wild. Nothing I’ve heard is as amazing and incredible as a lion’s roar. We’re having an impact on these species. They’re endangered, and it’s up to us to do something about it. It would be terrible to lose such an iconic species.
National Geographic: Is it too late to save them, or do you have hope?
I still have hope that we can save lions and many other species, but we have to act quickly. I feel hopeful for the future of lions in Zambia because the work that I’m doing, along with my colleagues, is creating a generation of people that are going to be working towards the protection of these species.
For more on big cats, tune in to Big Cat Week, premiering Monday, Feb. 20, at 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD and learn more about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, a global initiative that supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants.