A Biologist From Colorado Works to Protect Endangered Species in Africa

Dr. Matt Luizza. Photo Credit: Trevor Jones/Southern Tanzania Elephant Program Mathew Luizza, who prefers to be called Matt, is a Program Officer (Biologist) for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) International Affairs Program, which works to protect, restore, and enhance the world’s wildlife and habitats. USFWS has partnered with the EPI on projects related to elephant conservation.

Zooming into Matt’s role, he manages the US government’s African Elephant Conservation Fund (AECF) and serves as the technical lead on issues including pastoralism, protected area dynamics and environmental governance.

We met Matt at the EarthRanger User Conference in Cape Town late last year, and wanted to get to know him better.

Where are you from, and where was your passion for wildlife ignited?

I had the good fortune of growing up in the Front Range of Colorado (USA), which provided ample opportunities to cultivate a passion for wildlife and the outdoors. Living in a state that has one of the highest percentages of public land in the country, I had what felt like endless access to nature. I’ve had a strong affinity for wildlife for as long as I can remember, and if I wasn’t absorbing all I could, reading about charismatic species (especially gray wolves and African elephants), I was outside exploring. This passion has followed me throughout my professional and personal life, from operating as a wildland firefighter in Colorado, to working as an interdisciplinary research ecologist in Alaska and Ethiopia, to camping with my kids, or just enjoying the quietude of fly fishing on any number of Colorado’s exceptional rivers, streams, and lakes.

In your experience researching about, and working with wildlife, what has been the highlight of your career?

Easily, right now! Managing the AECF has been the highlight of my career, as it is a dream come true. I have the privilege of working with amazing colleagues across USFWS and the wider community of practice, and most importantly, our conservation partners on the ground, spanning individuals, government wildlife authorities, NGOs, local communities, and academic institutions, who are doing the real heavy lifting. I feel very honored and humbled to play some role in elevating and facilitating their tireless efforts, through the financial and technical assistance provided by my program and supporting the capacity development of African conservation champions across many of the continent’s 37 elephant range states.

Is there any story you can share that keeps you hopeful for wildlife conservation?

Thankfully, there are many stories that keep me hopeful. For example, during a recent field visit in southern Mozambique, I was able to witness meaningful and impactful collaboration between different conservation NGOs that are leveraging each other’s strengths and expertise, in partnership with local communities, to prevent and mitigate human-elephant conflict (HEC).

AECF partners based in South Africa (Elephants Alive) have tracked the transboundary movement of collared elephants from Kruger National Park into community lands in Mozambique’s Namaacha Valley. They have partnered with a local NGO (Mozambique Wildlife Alliance) and the communities most acutely affected by HEC to trial and test the efficacy of a series of mitigation measures (e.g., beehive fencing, unpalatable buffer crops, metal strip fencing, etc.), while also providing rapid response HEC support that is community-led.

Further south, in the Futi Corridor (outside of Maputo National Park), the same AECF partners are sharing information and coordinating with another conservation NGO (Conserve Global) that has been building the local governance institutional capacity of a village community association, in support of a future community-managed conservation area. These efforts highlight the importance of shared learning and co-creation of locally appropriate and community-led HEC prevention and mitigation measures, all of which needs to be built on a foundation of trust.

As you suggest, the complex issue of human-elephant conflict has become an increasing problem in Africa. What do you think are some of the most practical solutions?

I think there are a range of practical solutions that often can be relatively low-cost and low-tech interventions. However, their efficacy can be quite context specific and requires local people owning the process and being in the driver’s seat of decision-making. For example, villages in the Kilombero Valley, Tanzania are seeing tangible livelihoods benefits from trialing low-cost, locally appropriate, and evidence-based interventions, supported by AECF partners, Southern Tanzania Elephant Program (STEP).

Village farms at the edge of Nyerere National Park were subject to high rates of crop raiding by elephants. STEP worked with the communities to trial different methods, some of which weren’t effective. From these efforts that were built on long-standing trust, 3.5 km of elephant-proof fencing have been erected, consisting of fence posts with solar-powered strobe lights and a mobile section of metal strips. With the addition of the strobe lights, monthly rates of crop raiding dropped by over 50%, and in the first month of installing the metal strips, there were zero incidents of crop raiding. Addressing the multi-faceted challenges associated with HEC requires continued support for this type of triage intervention at a local scale, which protects the lives and livelihoods of people and the lives of elephants. However, these efforts alone are wholly insufficient to solve the root causes of HEC and thus, additionally requires engagement, critical reflection, and action on larger-scale policy decisions, such as land-use planning and linear infrastructure development.

So you remain optimistic that coexistence between people and elephants is possible in Africa?

I do remain optimistic, as the overarching goal of the AECF is to “ensure healthy African elephant populations in the wild, while improving pathways for human-elephant coexistence”.

However, I’m clear-eyed about the challenges faced and won’t downplay how high the stakes are for elephants and local communities. Climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, and other human activities are increasingly affecting elephant distribution and behavior, putting them at odds with local human populations due to heightened competition for space and resources, making HEC a growing challenge to address across much of Africa. On top of this, poaching for ivory remains a significant threat to elephants and is associated with drivers like poor national governance, low law enforcement capacity, poverty, and global elephant ivory prices.

It’s also concerning to see a growing level of politicization of HEC in many places that leverages legitimate grievances held by local communities, including the feeling that elephant conservation is an international priority that ignores local realities of sharing the landscape with elephants and that the lives of elephants are valued above those of the local people. These are the communities that will ultimately decide the fate of elephants and other wildlife and their habitat and is why it is so critical that conservation efforts support more holistic approaches that empower and amplify co-creation with Indigenous Peoples and local communities and embrace different ways of knowing a given landscape, emphasizing our role as stewards and caretakers of the Earth and each other.

Without it, we run the risk of losing both species of African elephants (forest and savanna), with forest elephants at especially high risk, being critically endangered, or one step removed from extinction. I have two kids (both under 5) and I don’t want them or anyone else in their generation to grow up in a world without African elephants. Like many other threatened and endangered species, they are essential to the health and resilience of the landscapes they inhabit, as “forest gardeners” and “ecosystem engineers”, and they continue to teach us valuable lessons about ourselves and our humanity – the importance of community and empathy, and how our fates are intertwined.


This story is from Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI)

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