Lion Defender

Thandiwe Mweetwa works to save big cats and other wild animals in Africa

EDWARD SELFE

ANIMAL TRACKER: Mweetwa uses tracking equipment to monitor the locations of wildlife in Zambia.

When Thandiwe Mweetwa (tahn-DEE-way moo-EE-too-AH) was 12 years old, she moved from a medium-sized town in southern Zambia in Africa to a rural village in the northern part of the country. For the first time, she came face-to-face with wildlife she’d only heard about: gazelles, giraffes, and mighty lions. She quickly fell in love with the animals.

JIM MCMAHON/MAPMAN®

Today, 29-year-old Mweetwa is a wildlife ecologist—a scientist who researches the relationship between organisms, their environment, and people. She studies lions, leopards, hyenas, and other carnivores, or animals that only eat meat, as part of the Zambian Carnivore Programme. Mweetwa tracks these animals to study their populations and help the species survive. Science World spoke with Mweetwa to find out about how she helps protect Zambia’s amazing wildlife.

What was it like moving to a rural village in Africa?

The village I moved to was so remote it didn’t have electricity or running water. Before I moved, the only wildlife I saw was on TV or in books and magazines. In the village, the first animal I saw was a baboon eating a mango. It was such a thrilling moment for me. But the villagers were so used to seeing wildlife, they couldn’t understand why I was so excited.

I’ve woken up to see an elephant just outside my bedroom window. We had to beat drums to keep them from coming too close to our house. We didn’t want them to lean on the building and topple it!

What’s a typical day like working with the Zambian Carnivore Programme?

I get up early in the morning to look for different populations of local carnivores: lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. We have fitted some animals in each group with electronic collars. They emit a signal, which allows me and the other researchers to track the animals’ locations.

We drive around looking for the animals. When we encounter them, we take photos and get a head count. We record any activity, like if they are mating or if there are new individuals. We follow the group to see where they go and what they eat. This helps us understand any threats to their safety and how well they are surviving.

What kinds of threats do the carnivores in Zambia face?

The threats are mostly anthropogenic, or human-related. The most serious threat is competition for land between people and carnivores. As the human population grows, people move into areas where wildlife lives, so some animal species are running out of space.

People also poach, or illegally hunt, smaller animals that larger carnivores rely on for food. Poachers often set wire snares to trap the animals—but can catch carnivores by accident. Part of our job is to rescue carnivores trapped in snares.

ELLIOTT NEEP/FLPA/MINDEN PICTURES (LION); WILL BURRARD-LUCAS/NATUREPL.COM (HYENAS); STU PORTER/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO (LEOPARD)

WILD BUNCH: Lions, leopards, and hyenas are some of the animals Mweetwa studies.

Have you seen your work benefit the wildlife around you?

I started working for the Zambian Carnivore Programme in 2009. At the time, there was one lioness that was about a year old. In 2010, she was reported trapped in a snare. We found her and got her out safely. Then in 2015, we saw that she raised her first litter of cubs. Seeing this lioness we helped rescue go on to have her own babies and add to the lion population was quite a rewarding experience.