Though decimated by Mozambique’s brutal civil war, the Gorongosa National Park is now an international leader in conservation, biodiversity and ecotourism. Heather Richardson examines its revival
African wild dogs are not known for their heavenly scent. Quite the opposite. So you have to feel for the pilot and vet who have been flying in a tiny, sweltering plane with 14 of the malodourous animals from South Africa to Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique.
There is an air of bubbling anticipation and excitement as throngs of park employees await the dogs’ arrival on the airstrip. On touchdown, Paola Bouley, Gorongosa’s associate director of carnivore conservation, and David Marneweck, carnivore conservation programme manager for South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust, oversee the moving of the sedated dogs from the plane to the truck, which will take them to a temporary boma, or enclosure.
Everyone crowds around as close as they can get, filming on their phones and craning their necks to see the endangered canids, with their dappled copper and black coats and white bushy tails that act as beacons on a hunt.
“It’s amazing to see them up close,” grins Ana Albazini, a teacher from Maputo working pro bono on Gorongosa’s education programmes. “It’s the type of thing you see on National Geographic.”
Visiting Gorongosa does feel a bit like being in a National Geographic documentary; indeed, several have been filmed here. The park is a rich, fertile expanse of wetlands and forests, savannah and lakes, most of it a wilderness without road access. One of the most biodiverse places on Earth, it is a hive of activity, a magnet for researchers, filmmakers and conservationists. Gorongosa is often used as an example of successful, multifaceted restoration – but it hasn’t been an easy road.
A long journey
In the 1960s, Gorongosa was one of the most popular parks in Africa, visited by Hollywood stars and wealthy travellers. Vasco Galante, Gorongosa’s director of communications – known around the park as “Vascopaedia” due to his immense knowledge of everything Gorongosa – tells me that the first film he ever saw at the cinema as a young boy in Portugal was a pre-movie trailer for the park. He was captivated by the scenes of Gorongosa’s prolific wildlife and decided he had to go and see Gorongosa for himself one day.
Years later, in 2005, he travelled to Mozambique to work as a teacher and took the opportunity to finally visit Gorongosa. But what he found was a mere shell of the glamourous images he had seen as a boy. Gorongosa had been a key battlefield in Mozambique’s brutal, 16-year civil war, with the Renamo resistance fighters using nearby Mount Gorongosa as their base – and the park had been utterly decimated.
A few months later, Galante happened to meet US philanthropist Greg Carr in Maputo. Carr had a plan to work with the government in a long-term, public-private partnership to restore Gorongosa, primarily to uplift and empower the surrounding communities. Galante signed up immediately.
In 2008, a 20-year joint management agreement was signed between Carr’s Gorongosa Restoration Project and the Mozambique government; and extended a further 25 years in 2016. Since then, the park has battled relentless poaching and worked around flare-ups in government/rebel tensions – yet despite what they were up against, the project’s successes are numerous.
In 2008, there were around 10,000 large animals in Gorongosa; today there are over 100,000. Wildlife crime has been aggressively tackled with key leaders of domestic poaching operations arrested and over 200 rangers employed to patrol the park. Gorongosa has become an international centre for science, attracting academics from all over the world. Over 600 people are employed by the park and the two biggest departments are human development and sustainable development. Industries such as cashew farming have been set up in the buffer zones. The Girls Club aims to keep girls in education and give them choices in life. Thousands of local children are brought into the park every year to learn about the ecosystem and experience safaris for themselves, inspiring the next generation of conservationists.
In light of a now indefinite ceasefire that started at the end of 2016, there is renewed hope that the final piece of the puzzle will now slot into place: tourism.
Tourism in Gorongosa
Tourism is an essential element of Gorongosa’s long-term mission. Tourists create local employment: “They place a value on the ecosystem,” explains Carr. “It creates opportunities for advancement.”
A visit to Gorongosa is not like any other safari experience. It is not just about wildlife and game drives. Being here offers a chance for tourists to delve into projects that reveal the complexity of conservation, to learn about one of the most biodiverse places in the world with ecology experts, to meet the locals who run female empowerment programmes and initiatives to defuse conflict between communities and wildlife.
Being at the main camp, Chitengo, currently run by Portuguese company Montebelo, feels like being in a research centre. Mealtimes are often used for informal meetings between departments who spend most of the day out in the field. Carr, a dynamic, endlessly enthusiastic Idahoan who spends around 50 per cent of his year in Gorongosa, darts around from table to table, laptop tucked under one arm. There is constant activity and each person I sit with at lunch or dinner has a wealth of information and stories to share.
“In 2014, when we arrived, there were times it was just us,” explains Anne Marchington, operations and logistics coordinator, who moved to Gorongosa with her husband Mike, the park’s operations director.
But with a calmer political situation and a global trend for off-beat destinations, Gorongosa has seen renewed interest.
“Last year was incredible,” Marchington says of the spike in tourism, adding that September 2017 saw all of Montebelo’s 50 comfortable cottages booked.
Ease of access has also improved: you can reach Gorongosa via a one-hour, 45-minute flight from Johannesburg to Beira, followed by a 30-minute light aircraft hop into the park.
Carr has long been convinced of the need for a luxury camp, which creates more jobs and more revenue per guest. It has been a challenge to find a suitable partner, but with the current stability comes exciting news: Royal Portfolio – the company that owns some of South Africa’s most luxurious properties, such as The Silo in Cape Town and Royal Malewane safari lodge – has recently confirmed they will open Royal Gorongosa in July 2019, their first property outside South Africa. The company’s involvement could be a game-changer when it comes to sustainable tourism in Gorongosa.
Rewilding the park
The conservation team’s success will directly impact tourism in the park, as wildlife is always going to be a big draw. The reintroduction of the wild dogs, for example, brings multiple benefits: “Carnivores are essential everywhere,” says Bouley. “It’s essential for the ecosystem, but also tourism.”
The wild dogs will stay in their boma for six to eight weeks to acclimatise to their new environment and to bond; the males are from the same pack, but the females were separate, so this is crucial. Marneweck tells me that rubbing the dogs’ faces in the others’ genitals when sedated aids the bonding process. Not exactly subtle, but the dogs certainly seem happy when I visit the boma a few days later, playfully leaping up at each other on their hind legs. If the reintroduction goes well, Bouley says the park, which has been home to wild dogs in the past, could take “upwards of 10 packs”.
Lurking outside the boma, drawn by the smell of the carcass fed to the dogs, we spot another carnivore: lions. Prior to the civil war, there were approximately 200 lions in Gorongosa; the conflict saw large animal populations fall by over 95 per cent. Today, there are 104 identified lions in the park, the subjects of ongoing research led by Bouley. She tells me the young, blonde-maned male we see outside the dogs’ boma is Buce; tourists’ photos are always welcomed by the conservation team to help them track the animals’ movements.
Since 2008, there hadn’t been a single leopard sighting in the park, even on camera traps. But in March 2018, guests and guides were surprised and elated to see a male leopard coolly stroll across the road in front of them, just 20 minutes from camp. Head guide, Richard Lusinga, a Zimbabwean with 27 years of experience, tells me they think the cat will still be in the area and that it’s likely more leopards will follow.
Then there are the elephants of Gorongosa. Survivors of mass poaching, they are still uneasy around people and vehicles. Their mistrust is passed from mother to young, so it’s a difficult association to break – but persistence and patience will eventually pay off. These impressive mammals are reminders of how wild Gorongosa still is; self-driving will not be permitted until the elephants have been habituated (meaning relaxed around vehicles), something to which every encounter contributes in a positive way.
We come across a herd during an afternoon drive. The park’s vegetation is thick and lush from April’s unexpectedly heavy rainfall (the wet season is from mid-December to March, during which time the park is closed) and we find the elephants feeding a short distance from the road. They permit us to watch for a few minutes, before there’s a low grumble followed by a tremendous, fierce trumpeting. Castro Maquina, our guide from nearby Vila Gorongosa, is used to this behaviour and starts the engine. The elephants spread out in a line alongside and behind us. As we drive, they run cumbersomely in single file alongside the vehicle, ushering us away. After a short distance keeping pace with us, the elephants come to a halt, eyeballing us, ears fanned out: their message is clear, and we move on. It’s just a warning.
Though it’s not exactly enjoyable being around animals so obviously apprehensive, habituating the Gorongosa elephants is an important part of the park’s development – and they are undeniably fascinating. Elephant expert Dr Joyce Poole and her ElephantVoices team have been working in the park since 2011, studying the elephants and their behaviour. Gorongosa emphasises passing on knowledge and skills to Mozambicans, and one of Poole’s protegees is Dominique Gonçalves. Gonçalves had her MSc studies in the UK funded by the Gorongosa Project and is now manager of the park’s Elephant Ecology Project and a National Geographic Explorer, presenting talks around the world.
Gonçalves is one of many Mozambicans to have benefited from Gorongosa’s restoration.
People are central to the project: 98 per cent of the team are Mozambican, 85 per cent are local, and education and training opportunities range from the Community Education Centre to the master’s programme in conservation biology, which was officially launched in April this year with 12 local students (five of whom are female) currently enrolled. It is considered the first master’s programme to be taught entirely within a conservation area and the aim is to enable the next generation of Mozambicans to become vets, ecologists and lab technicians.
A scientific treasure trove
The master’s programme would not be possible without the EO Wilson Biological Laboratory, opened in 2014 and which, since the end of 2017, includes a molecular lab, so samples can be studied right here in the park. It was Dr Edward O Wilson – the first person to use the term “biodiversity” – who claimed that Gorongosa was “ecologically the most diverse park in the world”.
Dr Marc Stalmans is the park’s director of science, born and raised in Congo before moving back to Belgium to complete his education. He shows me around the herbarium, a darkened, temperature-controlled room of plant specimens.
“It’s very Victorian in a way,” Stalmans comments, revealing a sample carefully protected between acid-free paper, before explaining the less Victorian element: each specimen has a barcode that links to a central database complete with information and photographs. “We have the luxury of starting from scratch,” Stalmans says of their modern system.
Associate director Dr Piotr Naskrecki is out in the field during my stay, but Stalmans relays that the biodiversity expert and acclaimed photographer (his images of bats are outstanding) estimates there are around 75,000 visible flora and fauna species in the park; there are 5,000 currently recorded in their database. “We are a project with a long view,” Stalmans notes, wryly. He predicts it will take more than 20 years to complete the catalogue.
During my visit a gentleman from the UK arrives, having travelled all the way here to meet katydid specialist Naskrecki and study Gorongosa’s leafhoppers. In the evening, the team set up a light for him at the camp, allowing him to examine species he’d never seen before. This is an example of Gorongosa’s wide-ranging appeal and how the park’s focus on science makes it stand out as a destination for curious minds.
All the departments work closely together, and science in particular is of huge importance to the whole park: “In order to do anything, you need information,” Stalmans points out. Such information is being used in the development of Gorongosa’s coffee project, on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa, just outside the park. Coffee production is a sustainable industry for the communities left destitute and often traumatised after the war – and, as a bonus, it’s an incentive to protect the mountain’s rainforest, as coffee needs partial shade to grow. The team have just produced their first batch and are now organising distribution. Carr tells me there’s potential for a coffee lodge on the mountain: another ecotourism venture.
Gorongosa is a genuinely inspiring destination that shows how much is possible when people work together. The park tends to have an unforgettable impact on visitors – but visitors also have a positive impact on the park. Ecotourism is what will ultimately sustain Gorongosa, the final piece in a holistic approach to conservation.
“When you come here, you’ll see how it all fits together,” Carr enthuses. “Come here – and expand your imagination.”
To visit: gorongosa.org