On a mission to help humans and the most dangerous of wildlife coexist, Moreangels Mbizah is breaking barriers for female Black conservationists.
Sitting in her open-air living room, Moreangels Mbizah points her phone at the incredible landscape of one of Zimbabwe’s largest national parks. It’s been a long week getting back into work on the field after lockdown, and she’s happy she can put her feet up for a bit. She beams at me through tinted sunglasses, relishing in the soft morning sunlight.
“Conservation wasn’t a career I was ever aware of growing up,” she says. Coming from a small town and a middle-class background, Moreangels explains her family didn’t have the money to go on holiday much and that included visiting any of Zimbabwe’s nature reserves. “But I wish I had known about wildlife earlier, because maybe that passion would’ve ignited earlier and I would’ve accomplished more,” she adds.
The 37-year-old conservation biologist has been working in wildlife conservation for more than 10 years, specialising in large carnivores such as lions and African wild dogs. The founder and executive director of Wildlife Conservation Action, she is also passionate about giving Black and Indigenous conservationists a voice in the sector, as well as giving a say to local communities.
Wildlife Conservation Action’s main mission is to “promote human-wildlife coexistence and socio-economic development of communities living adjacent to wildlife areas”. In a recent TED talk, Mbizah highlighted the necessity for humans to start learning how to live in tandem with wildlife. “We’re in a race against time,” she tells me. “We’re losing species every day — we’ve lost 43% of lions in the last two decades.”
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Habitat loss, fragmentation, and human population are some of the biggest drivers of this decline. She says to fix this, it’s vital we focus on humans first. Scientists in conservation have for too long been focusing on animals, but she says that by neglecting the humans that live with wildlife, we’re leaving both them and wildlife unprotected. “They’ve been living in the wild for many generations and it’s part of their lives,” she says. “We should involve them because they can help in protection, and benefit from the presence of this wildlife.”
Zimbabwe was under lockdown for the first two months of 2021, badly interrupting Wildlife Conservation Action’s activity. But things are slowly starting again. “From the start of March, we’ve been allowed to travel again, so I hope our field workers will start to gain momentum again.”
One of the conservationist’s biggest current projects, the Nyaminyami Human-wildlife Coexistence Project, aims to restore depleted wildlife populations — like lions — that used to benefit communities in the Sebungwe landscape of northwestern Zimbabwe. Much of the community in Mbizah’s local area lives on the boundaries of the Matusadona National Park. For years, they’ve had lions killing their livestock, and last year, a lion killed a person. Because of this conflict, she says the perception of lions is deteriorating and humans are increasingly resentful of having them in the area.
Her project is seeking a way to help them coexist with lions through predator-proof cattle bomas, camera-trapping, and reinforcing livestock fences. The project has also recruited community guardians who report and respond to any human-wildlife conflict incidences. She’s also implementing education in the local community, so people are aware of the danger of lions and can avoid conflict. She hopes that by working with the community, they will be able to revive populations and bring back the beauty to this area.
Mbizah wasn’t always this passionate about wildlife. Originally, she wanted to be an environmentalist, and join the people who were starting to make noise about global warming almost two decades ago. Until university, she hadn’t been to the wild but was starting to get exposed through public television and documentaries. Her first crossroads with conservation was when she had to pick a topic for her master’s project.
“I didn’t know anyone in this sector, but I had to shadow someone for my project,” she recounts. After locating an English female conservationist who invited her to the wild, where she saw rhinos, lions, African wild dogs, she realised this was her calling.
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Aside from the one experience at university, Mbizah says she never had any female idols to look up to in wildlife conservation. While she explains that the biggest general obstacle in the field is the limited funding, she says being a female is by far one of the most challenging things.
“And if you’re African or Black like me, it’s even worse,” she adds. Wildlife conservation calls for extended periods of time away from family and on the field, and cultural barriers often got in the way of this. “No one wants to accept that decision,” she says. The additional male-dominated factor means that many times as a woman, people have ignored her and treated her like a weaker counterpart.
“People ask me: ‘What? Why would you risk your life?’” she says. However, while her family were fascinated by her choice of career, she says they’ve always been supportive.
The next few years of wildlife conservation are quite critical for Mbizah. She says that young people are so connected and this could have a really big impact on progress. If her work has a direct impact on the rise in people passionate about wildlife and natural resources, she says she’s fulfilled her duties.
“Most of the things I’ve done until now are things I’d have never dreamt of doing,” she says. “I managed to calm my fears down, and go beyond what people expected of me.”