Devastated by war, this African park’s wildlife is now thriving

A generation after civil war, more than 100,000 large animals populate Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, a rare spot of good news.

GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK, in central Mozambique, along the southeastern coast of Africa, is rising anew from the ashes and ruination of war. The latest numbers from its 2018 aerial wildlife count, just released, show that the park’s populations of large mammals, devastated during the conflict, continue to rebound.

This is a place—rare in Africa, cause for jubilation—where most species of big fauna are vastly more numerous now than in 1992, at the end of the civil war. Surveys then found just 15 African buffalo, six lions, 100 hippo, and a handful of blue wildebeest. By the latest counts, the buffalo population is above one thousand head, hippo are at nearly 550, wildebeest above 600. Lions, though harder to count, are thriving too amid the expanded prey base.

The most recent census shows that wildlife populations in Gorongosa National Park have rebounded dramatically in the last few years.

Back in the early 1990s, after fifteen years of civil war, with two armies treating Gorongosa as a battlefield—and killing its wildlife for meat to feed soldiers and for ivory to buy arms—the place was in wreckage. It languished for more than a decade until, in 2004, the Gorongosa Restoration Project began, as a partnership between the Mozambican government and the US-based Carr Foundation. What the Carr Foundation (and its founder, Greg Carr) brought to this challenge was not just financial resources and management acumen but a vision that Gorongosa could become a “human rights park.”

African lions and painted wolves (also known as wild dogs) can now be seen in Gorongosa.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

That meant tangible benefits for the local people roundabout it—in health care, education, agronomy, economic development—as well as protection for its landscape, its waters, its biological diversity in all forms. Progress has been steady and measurable. One metric is literacy among local women and young girls. Another is wildlife recovery. Counting wild animals is never easy, but on the open savannas, floodplains, and mixed forest terrain of Gorongosa it can be done systematically and reliably by helicopter.

Mike Pingo, a seasoned veteran of wildlife piloting, flew the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter for two weeks of intensive counts, roughly six hours each day, with Marc Stalmans, the park’s director for science, and two other colleagues in the heli’s other seats, spotting animals, counting them species by species, and recording data. Pingo choppered up and back along charted transects, spanning a 500-metre-wide strip with each passage, from an elevation of 50 metres, while he and the others enumerated every visible animal as large as a warthog. (Waterbuck were the exception: so abundant on the Gorongosa floodplains that they had to be counted from wide-angle photographs.) Try that yourself for a few hours and you’ll see: It’s a recipe for airsickness and headache as well as statistical rigour. But these guys were experienced, with iron stomachs and good eyes, and they got the job done.

In addition to the increases in buffalo and wildebeest populations—dramatic since the war’s end, and significant since just 2014—numbers of impala, kudu, and nyala (a handsome spiral-horned antelope) are strongly up too. More than five hundred hippos cool themselves in the waters of Gorongosa’s Lake Urema and its nearby rivers on a given afternoon. Warthogs are so plentiful that you might find two sleeping under your porch at the Gorongosa hotel. Elephants have rebounded—more than 550 of them now, though Greg Carr and his colleagues aspire toward many more. Waterbuck are way up, to more than 55,000 head, offering testimony on the quality of Gorongosa floodplain habitat and lots of potential food for lions, wild dogs, and leopards.

As for the birdlife of Gorongosa, it’s wondrous and abundant: Egrets and ibises, darters and cormorants, lapwings and stilts, grey herons and spur-winged geese and African jacana are all doing well. Birds are especially difficult to count by helicopter because, of course, they keep spooking back and forth in great flocks. But the counters report seeing 229 active nests of marabou stork.

Marc Stalmans finds good news in the counts. “The results for wildebeest are particularly encouraging,” he says. Buffalo also—he was guardedly hopeful of that species reaching the 1,000-animal threshold and is gratified that it did. “Also, the degree of recovery of the warthog is quite spectacular”—they have almost doubled just since 2016.

All this wildlife recovery reflects fourteen years of smart, passionate effort by the team at Gorongosa, meaning not just Carr and the Park Warden and the conservation and science professionals but also those in operations, communications, and on the human development and enterprise sides. You can’t protect wildlife and its habitat for the long term, Carr and his colleagues know, by fencing out desperate people; if you want elephants and impala and kudu to thrive inside a park boundary, you need to ensure that humans who live just outside the boundary thrive too.

Even a decent, generally law-abiding man or woman might set a snare for unsuspecting wildlife to feed his or her starving children. With that in mind, it’s encouraging to consider the smallest number, but one of the most significant, reported from the 2018 wildlife counts at Gorongosa. Animals found in snares within the park: zero. The number is down, since the counts of 2014 and 2016, and the trend is good.

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