National Geographic
Emerging Explorer

Thandiwe Mweetwa

Lion Biologist

Picture of Thandiwe Mweetwa

Photograph courtesy Zambian Carnivore Programme

Working to save Zambia’s big cats

Thandiwe Mweetwa was 12 when she moved from a small town in southern Zambia to a rural area up north. Her parents had died within two years of each other, and she went to live with her uncle in her mother’s home village, Mfuwe. She found herself in a small red brick house with no running water or electricity, surrounded in nearby buildings by a big extended family. It might as well have been a world away.

But the move also introduced her to wildlife she had only seen on TV and heard about in stories from her mother: baboons, vervet monkeys, buffalo, elephants. A painful transition gave way to a new passion and career, and now she is doing crucial research to help save lions in Zambia. At the same time, she is helping shape a new generation of conservationists through the same student clubs that inspired her as a teenager.

Thandi's work is supported by a grant from National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. She is currently pursuing her master’s in natural resources conservation at the University of Arizona, while also spending time in Zambia to continue her study of lion populations, part of her work with the Zambian Carnivore Programme. She shares more below, including why her initial plans to be a wildlife vet never panned out. —By Christina Nunez

“I think with the right amount of tools, it’s possible to influence and change human behavior for the better.”

—Thandiwe Mweetwa

What was that transition like, after you had lost your parents and moved to this unfamiliar place?

Before moving to Mfuwe, our family lived in a small town surrounded by sugarcane plantations, so we never saw any wildlife. When I moved and had to change completely to a different way of life, without running water or electricity, that was difficult at first. But I think it turned out to be OK, because it set me on the path that I’m on at the moment.

Our village is surrounded by mango trees, so baboons and vervet monkeys are regular visitors during the mango season. There are also buffalo and small antelope like puku and bushbuck. The first animal I saw was a lone male baboon. It was exciting to see a real live wild animal for the first time.

Living with wildlife and learning more about them in my school's conservation club was wonderful. My mom's stories about wildlife around her village were always fascinating. When we moved there, it was easy to see why she was deeply attached to the area. Despite all the environmental problems, it’s still an amazing place, and I feel blessed to be able to work and live in Mfuwe. And I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded with really supportive people.


You’ve done a lot of work to save lions. Are lions sort of your “pet” species, or is there another animal that’s special to you?

I enjoy working with lions very much, but I also love wild dogs. Wild dogs are just an interesting species to watch. They’re facing so many problems, and they’re highly endangered. But just socially, they’re amazing animals to watch: how they interact with each other, how they help take care of the young and the sick, how each dog has a role to play in the group.

Picture of Thandiwe Mweetwa

Photograph courtesy Zambian Carnivore Programme

You were interested in wildlife early on, but what made you realize there was a problem to tackle?

My school had a conservation club. It’s just like an environmental awareness club, pretty much. There, we learned lots of stuff about general wildlife biology and also environmental issues and problems that were facing most of these species. That made me want to go into the field and do something at least to help protect these animals. The highlights were the monthly trips we took to a wildlife education center on the national park boundary.

Initially I thought of becoming a wildlife vet so I could ... help treat injured elephants or baby monkeys, things like that. That plan stuck up to, I think, second year of university [at the University of British Columbia]. I took some anatomy classes, and that didn’t go down really well because—dissections and all that [laughter]. I discovered that maybe this is not the right path if I couldn’t handle just cutting through dead flesh.

But around the same time I also got exposed to wildlife research, and so I switched that way. I could still work with animals, still help with all the issues they were facing, but just in a different capacity.


What would you want people to know about the Luangwa River Valley and why is it important?

It’s not a well-known place. I think that’s changing slowly. It’s an amazing place. There are still great densities of game. For example, it holds Zambia’s biggest lion population, its largest leopard population, its second-largest dog population. So ecologically it’s a key area ... important in the country, but also in the region.

Most of it has huge areas of land that can be used for conservation, but it’s also facing most of the environmental problems that you see in many parts—issues to do with human encroachment: increasing poaching incidents because of the bushmeat trade, elephant poaching and all that. It’s one of those areas that still has lots of potential for conservation, but also is just being hammered by different environmental issues.


It seems like there’s so much bad news that we hear about the fate of wildlife and specifically big cats. What makes you hopeful about the work you’re doing?

Yes, there is quite a lot of doom and gloom you hear about all these issues, people just having negative perceptions in general. I think what makes me hopeful about the work that I do and just conservation work in general is that most of the problems are tied to human behavior. I think with the right amount of tools, it’s possible to influence and change human behavior for the better.

If we’re able to influence human behavior in any way, there’s definitely a chance for species worldwide—big cats and all the other animals.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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