Thandiwe Mweetwa
Institute of the Environment 2017

UA Student Named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The National Geographic Society chose University of Arizona graduate student Thandiwe Mweetwa to be part of its 2016 class of Emerging Explorers, a group of 13 individuals from around the globe whose unconventional thinking and innovations are changing the world for the better.

Mweetwa, a master's degree student in natural resources conservation at the UA, is conducting critical research to help save lions in the Luangwa River Valley in her native Zambia.

The river valley is "an amazing place," Mweetwa said. "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."

Mweetwa’s parents had died within two years of each other, and she was 12 when she moved from a small town in southern Zambia to a rural area up north. The move introduced her to wildlife she had heard about in stories from her mother—baboons, vervet monkeys, buffalo and elephants—and introduced her to a new passion and career.

After traveling to Canada to pursue her bachelor’s degree in applied animal biology, Mweetwa worked with the Zambian Carnivore Programme over summer breaks. The program is dedicated to preserving large carnivore species and the ecosystems that support them.

Mutual involvement in the program brought about collaboration between Mweetwa and David Christianson, an expert in predator-prey relationships and assistant professor at the UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. Together, the team monitors lion behavior through radio collars, wildlife cameras, and extensive on-the-ground observation.

"Thandiwe is collecting critical data needed to assess what factors might be important to maintaining the lion population," he said. "We need to understand the status of these populations."

Christianson also emphasized Mweetwa’s commitment to educating the public about the importance of conservation. “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 policymakers."

Mweetwa said she remains hopeful that the work she does, and conservation work in general, will help thwart poaching incidents and other human behavior that is threatening the animals.

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

Funding from the UA’s Water, Energy, and Environmental Solutions initiative, which is co-managed by IE, allowed Mweetwa to continue working in the South Luangwa National Park for the better part of this year.