Journey to Gorongosa National Park

April 1, 2016

I recently explored the gorgeous Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique. The resurrection of this 4 000 square-km protected area is one of the most hopeful examples of African conservation, largely thanks to funding and investment from an American philanthropist.
Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Waterbuck on the road to Chitengo Camp. Gorongosa has spectacular woodlands, floodplains and lake systems. The landscape is extremely photogenic, but probably best appreciated from the air, as it is generally flat and has few elevated viewpoints.

After Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique ended, a civil war raged in the country from 1977 to 1992. Wild animals were slaughtered en masse to feed hungry soldiers.

Because it lies in the central region of the country – where fighting was particularly intense – Gorongosa National Park suffered more than most other parks.

The figures read like a horror story. At the end of the war, there were only 44 hippo (down from 3 500), 15 Cape buffalo (down from 13 000), 12 zebra (down from 3 300) and just 1 lonely blue wildebeest (down from 6 400). The elephant population was reduced by 90%.

Predators like spotted hyenas and wild dogs were wiped out, and only a few lions managed to survive.

Today, wildlife numbers are increasing, thanks mostly to one individual.

Greg Carr is an American billionaire who first visited the park in 2004, and has invested more than $40 million in Gorongosa's conservation.

Greg Carr is an American billionaire who first visited the park in 2004, and has invested more than $40 million in Gorongosa’s conservation. Working with the government and local communities especially, he is slowly but surely empowering – through conservation – a whole region of one of the poorest countries in the world.

There’s still much work to be done, yes, but for me, if Africa’s wildlife is going to survive the next 100 years, then wealthy individuals and organizations like the World Bank need to follow Greg Carr’s example and commit serious funding to the cause.

Both eco-tourism and controlled hunting will never on their own be able to fund the protection, restoration and expansion of African wilderness.

It’s time to acknowledge that Africa’s wildlife is a global treasure, and deserving of billions of dollars of funding from wealthy western and Asian countries, many of which have already profited directly from the destruction of the continent’s natural resources.

Not forgetting we are all indirectly responsible in some way. It’s time to take a stand and fight for the last remaining wildlife of Africa. As Carr says: “I adore Gorongosa” – and so do I.

There’s a superbly written article from the New Yorker in 2009 which profiles Greg Carr and his work in Gorongosa. Highly recommended reading, and a PDF of it can be downloaded here – New Yorker Article – Greg Carr – Gorongosa.

 

Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

Waterbuck on the floodplains of Lake Urema. Cape buffalo were once the dominant grazers in the park, but with their decimation by soldiers during the civil war, the waterbuck population exploded, and today they are the most numerous herbivore in Gorongosa - by far.

Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

Waterbuck, waterbuck...everywhere. There are more than 55 000 in Gorongosa. If you're a lion in this park, I hope you like waterbuck meat.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Lions are the symbol of Gorongosa, and hold special place in local folklore. Powerful men are said to turn into lions when they die, and Chief Chitengo was believed to have transformed into a white lion when he died in the early 1900s. The lions of Gorongosa have always been here. Unlike spotted hyaenas and wild dogs, they weren't wiped out by the civil war. From about 200 individuals, they were reduced to just a few individuals, probably fewer than ten. Today there are about 70 lions that researchers have documented, and there have been no introductions of lions from other parks. Yet, interestingly, despite no competition from other large predators like hyaenas, the lion population doesn't seem to be growing as quickly as hoped. Researcher Paola Bouley is at the forefront of the research effort to understand the behaviour and biology of the lions of Gorongosa.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Why you don't go walking through the African grass without knowing what you're doing. This lioness was almost invisible behind the camouflage of the dry grass.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

The elephants of Gorongosa were almost exterminated during the civil war, but they hung on...but they're still very wary of humans, and are more aggressive than other elephants which have lived in relative peace.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

There are about 500 elephants in Gorongosa, and their numbers have rebounded after they were almost wiped out during the civil war.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

The beautiful waterfalls on Mount Gorongosa...the rivers which feed Lake Urema in the lowlands. Without these rivers, the lakes below will disappear. It's a real possibility, given the increased deforestation on the slopes of the mountain. Local people need firewood, and their need for fuel needs to be met with other fuels, otherwise the deforestation will continue. And yet Mozambique has some of the biggest gas reserves in the world...but most of it never reaches the remote, rural communities.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

My friend Andy diving into a rock pool on Mount Gorongosa. The rivers on this mountain feed Lake Urema on the floodplains, but the deforestation on the highlands has threatened the flow of water to the lowlands. Gorongosa's ecology is in many ways dependent on the conservation of it's mountain...but when we explored it one day, we saw parts of the forest being burnt down. Much work remains to be done before the park can claim to be an iconic African park.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Wildness comes in many forms, and for me, it is represented not only in lions and elephants and other charismatic species, but also insects like this wild bee hive which we saw hanging from a tree. Remarkable to witness!

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Gorongosa has an extensive insect fauna, and has drawn great admiration from eminent biologist EO Wilson, who has visited the park several times and has mentored several young local biologists. In his own words, Gorongosa is "the most ecologically diverse park in the world." We came across these Matabele ants one afternoon, as they were raiding a termite nest. To me, watching these remarkable insects was as intriguing as watching lions on a hunt. I'm sure Dr Wilson would agree, as his favourite study species is the ant.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

The baboons at Chitengo camp aren't afraid to test the limits of human tolerance. This male was only too happy to claim his territory, in no uncertain terms!

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

On one of the guided game drives in the late afternoon, we came across this porcupine near a waterpan. My first daylight sighting of one of these nocturnal creatures.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

At the end of the Mozambican civil war, there were fewer than 20 Cape buffalo left, after soldiers had hunted most of them for food. As part of the Gorongosa restoration project, several hundred have been translocated into Gorongosa from parks like Kruger in South Africa. Today the buffalo are thriving again, with more than 1 000 in the park.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Andy figuring it all out, at our campsite at Chitengo, the main headquarters for the park.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Arriving at Gorongosa National Park

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

This truck with hardwood trees was confiscated by park rangers...the level of deforestation of hardwood in Mozambique is out of control and despite the best intentions of park rangers, it continues regardless.

Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Sunset over Lake Urema...yellow-billed storks and marabou storks in the foreground. Despite the tragic past, Gorongosa's restoration team continues to do remarkable work. If the park continues on it's upward trajectory, it will one day become one of Africa's finest national parks.

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