Abdulla Aujan on continuing his family’s work as the Middle East’s leading conservationists.
The pristine landscape of Niassa Reserve stretches across most of northern Mozambique adjacent to Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve to potentially comprise one Africa’s largest remaining wildernesses.
It’s a truly unique part of the world, and one that Dubai-based businessman Abdulla Aujan first encountered as a child. His father, Sheikh Adel Aujan, took him to Niassa in the hope that he would share his love of Africa. “I was 12 and initially wasn’t so thrilled about having to go, I wanted to play video games and football,” remembers Abdulla. “But when I saw Niassa it was so incredibly beautiful, I quickly appreciated what my father was showing me. It’s somewhere he fell in love with over 20 years ago and I learned a new appreciation for how precious things are and for all that I have.”
As Chairman of one of the Middle East’s largest drinks manufacturers, Sheikh Aujan was one of the region’s most prominent industrialists. His enterprise, the Aujan Group, became Niassa’s first concessionaire in 2000 and he personally dedicated huge amounts of time and money to nurturing this precious ecosystem. Largely away from the spotlight, he became one of the Gulf’s leading conservationists.
Since Sheikh Aujan’s death in 2017, Abdulla has continued his father’s work in his memory. “My dad got me involved in everything, whether it was work or friends,” says Abdulla. “But it was his conservation work that really drove him, and that’s why I feel so passionate about it.”
Abdulla admits that he’s gone from “knowing nothing about conservation” to meeting NGOs and Ministers and leading a movement for long term change in a region that is under serious threat. Niassa’s elephant population has declined massively, from an estimated 13,000 to 3,000 in under 10 years. During years of civil unrest, both Mozambique’s people and wildlife became acutely vulnerable to organised criminal networks.
Working closely with Derek Littleton, Conservation Manager at the Luwire Wildlife Conservancy — the largest of Niassa’s seventeen private concessions – and First Avenue’s Paul Buckley, Abdulla has helped to develop a strategy to move Niassa forwards that is anchored in sustainability.
“Before now, investing in Niassa was a real challenge,” he says. “The conservation work was like putting out bush fires, rather than a focused, sustainable path.
“Today, we have developed community projects to educate people about the value of wildlife and created relationships that will safeguard it for the future. Our vision is for a sustainable long term conservation project that has a return.
“This isn’t about us swooping in to solve Africa’s problems. We’re not looking to create any divide; instead we want to involve the community whose home is in or near the bush. Educating them at a young age is critical, because the long term success of both wildlife and humans depends on them being able to live together in harmony.”
However, any strategy to save Niassa necessarily depends on greater support – both financially and from those in power. Happily, the Mozambique government under President Felipe Nyusi has shown great commitment to protecting this country’s wildlife and the landscapes they depend on. But thus far, there have only been a few consistent, well-funded conservation efforts in Niassa other than from the Aujan Group.
As Littleton puts it “We have benefited immensely over the years from the support of the Aujan Group. But defending Luwire against poachers has raised the stakes and the costs. The Aujan Group can no longer be expected to carry the burden alone.”
Space for Giants, the international conservation charity, is coming on board to help overcome these final parts of the puzzle. Max Graham, Founder and CEO of Space for Giants, says: “We have been watching Mozambique for some time and have noticed the sea change in attitudes towards conservation. We are already working with Luwire in Niassa and hope to step up our involvement later this year. ‘We need sustainable benefits for communities living in the Reserve. We need to transform the locals from consumers of nature into long term guardians of their natural heritage. We need to provide the initial spark in the form of education and jobs in security and eco-tourism”.
Few places left on earth remind you of the value of nature like Niassa. For that reason – and to continue his father’s legacy – this is not a fight Abdulla will ever abandon.
“I truly hope in the near future Niassa will become a sustainable project which benefits both people and wildlife, and which requires less intervention and empowers those who live there to manage it themselves.
Africa has it’s challenges which are not easy to take on and there is no one solution. But the fight to protect it is worth it.”