Joana Liconde stands on a sandbar at the Chemambo sacred pools, her emerald dress drenched and raining water droplets at her feet. She faces the altar, a young baobab tree whose hallowed girth is swaddled in white fabric, and leads fellow pilgrims in prayer. When the worshippers splashed in the spring waters moments earlier, they effervesced like children. Now they’re quietly reverential. The drumbeat of their dancing feet has fallen still as they stand in devotion. The musical rattles are respectfully quiet as the retiring sun delivers the group into an evening of more dancing, singing, and prayer.
The worshippers are taking part in a chonde-chonde ceremony in Niassa, a protected area in northern Mozambique, where they lay offerings of food and money at the base of the baobab and call on their ancestors, chanting chonde (please), for happiness, health, and abundance. Baobabs are sacred—antechambers to the numinous, where people gather to invoke the spirits of their forebears. Lore protects these trees from the feller’s axe.
Liconde is a traditional healer. She asks for her practice to be blessed with prosperity; she also intercedes on behalf of others in Mbamba, a village of about 2,000 Yao speakers on the Lugenda River. Only a few have made the two-day walk to this holy place where people have worshipped for as long as memory. The Yao, like the other ethnic groups living in the reserve—including the Macua, Ngoni, Matambwe, and Makonde—have a culture that glimmers with an animist connection with nature even as they’ve blended Islam into their spirituality.
The spirits of their ancestors endure here in the form of baboons, ambling on all fours among the pilgrims. One or two baboons pick peanut offerings from the sand with leathery fingers. Others squat contemplatively on sun-toasted rocks. Shrieking adolescents scamper after each other.
“When people die, they often enter the body of other creatures, like snakes or lions or elephants,” Liconde says.
Away from this outdoor temple, baboons have no special significance for the Yao, who often have running battles with crop-raiding troops. But these particular baboons are different. Legend has it that long ago, in a time before Liconde’s “grandparents’ grandparents,” Mambo, a Yao chief, and his family died after throwing themselves into the pools following a village conflict. Their souls entered the baboons, which today command respect and nourishment, so people give them food offerings of peanuts and dried corn.
“If we don’t, the spirits will go hungry,” Liconde explains. “This has been passed down and remains the tradition.”
Hunter-gatherers, farmers, rulers of chiefdoms—people have called this region home for thousands of years. But centuries of colonization and a recent civil war have left communities in Niassa desperately poor. If this magnificent wilderness—ancestral lands of people who have lived here for generations—is to be preserved and nurtured for the future, they must be given a direct stake in conservation efforts and tourism.
Larger than Switzerland at 16,300 square miles, Niassa was established in 1954 as a hunting reserve and made a national protected area in 1999. It’s one of the biggest African wildernesses the world has never heard of, time-capsuled by remoteness and still recovering from the country’s bloody 16-year civil war, which ended in 1992. It’s home to East African stars—elephants, buffalo, lions, African wild dogs—as well as curiosities such as the Boehm’s zebra, Johnston’s impala, and Niassa wildebeest. Its spreading plains are embroidered with woodlands, forests, and floodplains and dotted with granite inselbergs—rocky outcrops like galleons on the ocean.
Since prehistoric times, people have lived and traded in the region, their early presence recorded with Stone Age artifacts and renderings on granite canvases. They’ve lived off the woodlands and rivers, collecting wild meat, honey, fruit and nuts, firewood and medicinal plants, and catching fish. They’ve added crop growing to their daily round, cultivating maize, peanuts, beans, sesame, sorghum, and cash crops such as tobacco. Today the more than 60,000 people in hamlets across Niassa continue to live off the land, although the reserve’s joint managers—Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC) and the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society—control fishing and hunting. A licensing system limits when, where, and how fish can be caught. And hunting wild meat for the pot, or to sell to local traders, is banned now. People are encouraged to raise ducks, chickens, and rabbits as alternative sources of protein.
One November morning, on the road nearing Mbamba, fishermen push bicycles to market along the same dusty track the villagers occasionally share with various four-footed pedestrians—elephants, lions, antelope—after spending weeks at a camp nine miles downstream on the Lugenda River. Woven bamboo baskets on their bikes brim with nyingu, a mudsucker, and campango, a freshwater catfish plucked from the river in nets. The fish had been dried and smoked over an open-air fire back at the camp, the alchemy of curing turning their scales pewter and the flesh parchment-dry, giving it a shelf life of weeks.
To the Yao, fish are more than simply a source of scarce protein. They’re as valuable as newly minted coins. Villagers barter fish for cooking oil, rice, even clothes, in the local market. Mbamba is also still connected to age-old trading routes that crisscross the area, allowing fishermen to sell some of their catch to traders from elsewhere in the reserve and beyond. “People are coming from Cabo Delgado,” a province to the east, says Benvindo Napuanha, community manager for the Niassa Carnivore Project (NCP), a conservation initiative set up in 2003. “We even have people from Tanzania buying this fish,” he adds.
Most of Niassa—72 percent of its land—is allocated for sport-hunting concessions, which private operators lease for up to 25 years with the option of renewal. Each hunting block gets a quota of trophy species that can be shot, such as buffalo, leopards, lions, and antelope. After a trophy animal is killed, concessions often give the body to villagers for its meat. Just over a fourth of the reserve is for nonhunting tourism, and one percent for special conservation areas where no tourism is allowed. Trophy hunting accounts for more than four-fifths of the reserve’s million-dollar annual tourism revenue. After the government takes its cut, villagers get 20 percent of the income to spend as they see fit.
November in this part of Mozambique is so uncomfortable it’s sometimes called “suicide month,” when the rains are imminent and the mercury pushes upwards of a hundred degrees. One soporific morning, a group of villagers seem oblivious to the draining heat as they hoist rocks bigger than footballs into wire gabion frames to shore up a section of wall along a two-and-a-half-mile trench they’d dug around Mbamba two years earlier. About six feet deep, the dry moat keeps elephants and buffalo from wandering in.
The village lies in the south of the reserve and works with NCP, which operates out of the Mariri Environmental Centre six miles to the east along the Lugenda River. The project is funded largely by donors and aims to find ways for communities across the reserve to live in harmony with and help protect large carnivores.
In 2012, Mbamba’s leaders signed an agreement with Mariri Investimentos, the organization that runs the project and leases a 224-square-mile conservation concession surrounding the village. An innovative partnership, Tchova-Tchova (meaning “You push, I push”), emerged. Its goal is to boost community income and food production and include villagers in conservation projects while allowing them to manage essential needs, such as water supply, solar lighting, schooling for children, and crop protection against hungry animals. Because of Tchova-Tchova, Mbamba residents find jobs at the environmental center and the Mpopo Ecolodge, in construction, in road maintenance, and as rangers.
In return, villagers are encouraged to protect wildlife and habitat. The more animals, the more tourism dollars, the rationale goes. A community conservation fund administered by the villagers rewards wildlife-friendly behavior. For every tourist who visits the environmental center, Mariri Investimentos pays $25 into the fund. For every prize animal a tourist spots—a lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, wild dog, or hyena—Mariri pays eight dollars into the fund. For every month with no elephant poaching in the vicinity, the fund earns $155. But if Mariri’s rangers find evidence of poaching, money is deducted—$19 for every snare, for example; $232 is docked for every lion killed; and a poached elephant takes $310 from the community fund.
People caught poaching in Niassa mostly want animals for meat to eat at home or to sell for cash to buy maize or satisfy other needs. The Tchova-Tchova partnership between Mbamba and Mariri might show how a collaboration of this kind can address poaching for the pot across the reserve. Since its inception, snaring for bushmeat has dropped dramatically. There’s a noticeable increase in ungulates around Mbamba, such as waterbuck and impalas, along with warthogs and hippos, suggesting that wildlife is benefiting. Some carnivores are doing better in this part of the reserve too. The number of lion prides has increased from two to seven since the agreement came into play, according to NCP. Leopards and wild dogs are also recovering, partly because of a greater abundance of prey.
This is the kind of community partnership ANAC expects of concessionaires, conservationists, and NGOs, says Niassa’s warden, Terêncio Tamele. “It’s part of the contract and performance review of the concessionaires,” he says. The collaboration could include conservation, health, education, and employment programs, helping keep the wilderness intact.
Just over a decade ago some 12,000 elephants roamed Niassa’s wilds, but by 2018 a fever of ivory poaching had reduced the number to an estimated 3,150. (A pyramid of elephant skulls beneath a marula tree at Mariri Environmental Centre stands as a poignant memorial.)
During the past half decade, ivory poaching has slowed, and rangers and villagers report bigger herds, with more babies and adolescents; elephant numbers are up to nearly 4,000. Around Mbamba, the villagers’ anti-elephant trench is the first of its kind in Niassa, a nonlethal way to prevent dangerous encounters. More than 200 villagers signed up for the grueling three-month excavation, paid for mostly by NCP, with a quarter coming from the Tchova-Tchova fund—a dollar for every foot of trench, bringing $19,000 into households.
The day I saw workers slogging through the morning heat to reinforce the trench, some men were tending a young banana plantation inside the new perimeter, out of reach of hungry elephants. One elderly man dragged a hose from tree to tree, irrigating each with water drawn from a nearby well by a solar-powered pump. Plump bananas hung like baseball mitts from the slender adolescent trees, safe from peckish elephants. Villagers say they now get to keep the mangoes and papayas from trees growing along Mbamba’s streets for themselves, since they no longer have to compete with visiting elephants.
The towering baobab’s bark is as dimpled as the surface of the moon under the campfire’s flickering light, which throws into relief scars from hand-hewn stakes hammered into the bark.
Mbamba villager Luís Iwene, 28, is climbing toward the crown the way many elders have before him. He pounds fresh stakes into the trunk and hoists his tools as he goes: a coil of rope made from knotted lengths of bark; a plastic bucket; a large kitchen knife hanging from his waistband. He’s bare-chested and barefooted, wearing nothing more than cutoff denims as he scales the bole with the ease of a high-wire acrobat. He squats on the rungs, methodically pegging the next steps of his rudimentary ladder.
The prize awaits above, tucked into the crook of a branch high overhead: folds of honeycomb, brimming with liquid gold, shimmering under the buzzing attention of myriad bees. Come nightfall, bees are dozy and less likely to sting, which makes a nocturnal honey raid safer.
At the top, Iwene steadies himself with one hand, balances on the pegs, and coaxes to life the smoldering tip of a bundle of dried thatching grass, nearly half as long as he is tall. From the ground, it looks no bigger than a burning matchstick and Iwene himself no taller than a child. The baobab is still a youngster—maybe 500 years old—for a species that can live 2,000 years; even so, it’s a giant that reduces smaller surrounding woodland trees to Giacometti stick figures.
Yao have long used the mastery of fire and smoke to conjure honey from behind bees’ defensive veils, although their forays don’t go unpunished. Honey collectors get stung, and there are times, Iwene says, when you have to give up. “For sure, we run sometimes. If the fire goes out or if the bees come in swarms, that’s it—you run.” Tonight the bees acquiesce. Iwene is free to break off curtains of honeycomb, occasionally swatting at his face while he drops chunks into the bucket.
He learned to harvest wild honey under the tutelage of other masters, observing how experienced collectors climb trees to tap hives. He undertakes these feats of dexterity about 10 times a year. He seldom removes more than half a bucketful of honeycomb, leaving plenty for the hive. This is enough to take home to Mbamba, about 12 miles from here, where Iwene and his family will eagerly spoon it up. If it’s still fresh, they may eat pieces of honeycomb pulsing with bee brood, which is less sweet but rich in protein. He may also trade some honey for cash or barter it with fellow villagers for other kinds of foods.
Forest fruits such as tamarinds, marulas, and baobabs wax and wane with the seasons, but bees are always working, which is why honey traditionally has been an important source of sweet food for the Yao. Some hives are hidden inside woody nooks or hollow trees far smaller than baobabs. To get to them, Yao honey collectors have struck up a mutually beneficial relationship with the greater honeyguide, a bird they call sego. It’s one of few animals that can digest beeswax. When the birds see a person, and a hive is not far away, they utter a chittering Morse code—tji-tji-tji tji-tji-tji—to signal there’s honey to be had nearby. An attentive Yao answers with a distinctive brrrr-HM, brrrr-HM, brrr-HM.
The honeyguide leads the way, flitting from tree to tree with the honey hunter in pursuit, calling back and forth as they go. When hunter and bird reach the hive, he pacifies the bees with smoke, chops down the tree, cracks open the bole with an axe, and pulls the honeycomb free. Then he shares the loot, leaving a pile of sugar-laden honeycomb for his guide.
In 2015, evolutionary biologist Claire Spottiswoode, from the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, and Cambridge University, in the U.K., teamed up with Yao honey hunters Orlando Yassene and Musaji Muamedi to find out if the birds are responding to any old sound or specifically to the Yao call. The team walked through the woodlands on a series of simulated honey hunts, playing three different sounds on a portable speaker: the Yao’s brrrr-HM call; arbitrary human sounds; and other animal sounds, such as the call of a ring-necked dove. The segos were at least twice as responsive to the brrrr-HM call and led the team to hives three times more often in response to it.
There’s no guarantee that this ancient, sing-song cooperation, which has already vanished from many parts of Africa, will endure in Niassa. In South Africa, “wild honey hunting is now very rare,” according to Spottiswoode. “The birds continue to call us, but few people listen.” If it’s easier to buy refined sugar in Mbamba’s marketplace, why take on a task as laborious and potentially painful as collecting honey high up in a baobab or from deep inside a woodland tree?
After Iwene lowers his bucket to the end of the bark rope, he scampers down the pegged rungs with ease. On the ground, forearms glistening with honey in the firelight, his face breaks into a satisfied grin. Tonight is a sweet night in Niassa’s remote woodlands.
Educated as a marine biologist, Thomas Peschak picked up a camera in an effort to increase his influence on wildlife conservation. An Explorer since 2017, he’s participating in the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition, for which he photographed the magazine’s July 2023 article on Amazonian rock art.
This story appears in the September 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.