How one of Africa’s great parks is rebounding from war

“You can just see nature breathing a sigh of relief.” In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, wildlife’s future depends on humans’ livelihoods.

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A male elephant grabs an evening snack in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. Most of the park’s elephants were killed for their ivory, used to buy weapons during the nation’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1992. With poaching controlled, the population is recovering.
In March 2019 Cyclone Idai devastated the communities around Mozambique's Gorongosa Park. Click here to learn how you can help.

This story appears in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. Gorongosa National Park is a conservation partner of the National Geographic Society’s Last Wild Places initiative.

On a warm morning at the end of the dry season, early November, a red and black Bell Jet Ranger helicopter raced eastward above the palm savanna of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

Mike Pingo, a veteran pilot originally from Zimbabwe, controlled the stick; Louis van Wyk, a wildlife-capture specialist from South Africa, dangled halfway out the right rear side holding a long-muzzle gun loaded with a drug-filled dart. Seated beside Pingo was Dominique Gonçalves, a young Mozambican ecologist who serves as elephant manager for the park.

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Cradled in the southern end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Gorongosa’s 1,500 square miles span mountainsides, plateau forests, escarpment canyons, palm savannas, and wetlands. The Bunga inselbergs—ancient nubs of volcanic rock left behind by the erosion of softer surroundings—punctuate the sweep of forest.

More than 650 elephants now inhabit Gorongosa—a robust increase since the days of the country’s civil war (1977-1992), when most of the park’s elephants were butchered for ivory and meat to buy guns and ammunition. With the population rebounding, Gonçalves wanted a GPS collar on one mature female within each matriarchal group.

Gonçalves picked a target animal from a group running amid closely spaced palms, and Pingo took the helicopter in as low as the trees permitted. Ten elephants—adult females, small calves at their sides, subadults also staying close—fled the throbbing din of rotors. Van Wyk, forced to make a longer shot than usual, nevertheless put his dart into the chosen female’s right buttock.

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African wild dogs were lost entirely from Gorongosa during the war. With some prey populations booming, the park needs its native predators. A pack of 14 wild dogs from South Africa, released in 2018, now helps balance the ecosystem.

Pingo landed, and the other two jumped out, clambering through trampled grass toward the sedated elephant. Moments later a ground team arrived with heavier supplies, technical helpers, and an armed ranger. Gonçalves placed a small stick in the end of the elephant’s trunk, propping it open for unimpeded breath. The animal, sprawled on her right side, began snoring loudly. One technician drew a blood sample from a vein in the left ear. Another helped van Wyk scooch the collar under the elephant’s neck.

Gonçalves, wearing medical gloves, took a swab of saliva from the animal’s mouth and a rectal swab from the rear, sealing them both into vials. She pulled a long plastic sleeve onto her left arm and reached deep up the elephant’s rectum, bringing out a handful of fibrous, ocher poop that would be used to analyze the elephant’s diet. The elephant’s great flank heaved up and down gently in rhythm with the trombonic susurrus from her trunk.

“Louie, can you tell if she’s pregnant?’ Gonçalves asked.

“She’s due soon,” van Wyk said, noting the watery milk leaking from the elephant’s distended breasts.

The growth of the elephant population is only part of the encouraging news from Gorongosa. Most of the big fauna, including lions, African buffalo, hippos, and wildebeests, are vastly more numerous now than in 1994, shortly after the war. In the realm of conservation, where too many indicators herald gloom and despair, success on such a large scale is rare.

Van Wyk finished fitting the collar and Gonçalves packed up her samples. Van Wyk injected a wake-up drug into an ear vein, and the crew backed off to a safe distance. After a minute, the elephant stood, gave her head a groggy shake, and strode away to rejoin her group. Tracking data from the collar will tell Gonçalves and her colleagues how the elephants move across the landscape—and alert them when the group is crossing a park boundary toward a farmer’s field, so the farmer can take steps to save the crops.

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White-faced whistling ducks take flight above a company of pelicans and storks wading in Gorongosa’s Sungué River, which feeds the park’s Lake Urema. Even in the dry season, the lake and its tributary channels harbor abundant birdlife.

This is how it’s done in the Gorongosa Restoration Project, a partnership launched in 2004 between the Mozambican government and the U.S.-based Gregory C. Carr Foundation. For elephants and hippos and lions to thrive within a park boundary, you need to ensure that the humans who live outside the boundary thrive too.

Stretching across a floodplain at the south end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, encompassing savannas, woodlands, wetlands, and a wide pan of water called Lake Urema, Gorongosa was once a hunting reserve: Portuguese colonial administrators established it in 1921 for their sporting pleasure by removing the people who once shared the landscape with wildlife. In 1960, when first designated a national park, it harbored about 2,200 elephants, 200 lions, and 14,000 African buffalo, as well as hippos, impalas, zebras, wildebeests, eland, and other iconic African fauna.

Discover How Conservation is Being Redefined in Gorongosa National Park In this short film, follow elephant expert Dominique Gonçalves as she shares the powerful ways that Gorongosa National Park is working with local communities and gaining a new generation of brave women rangers and scientists.

But its remoteness became its undoing. In the ruinous 15-year civil war that followed independence in 1975, Gorongosa served as a refuge for the right-wing RENAMO, or Resistência Nacional Moçambicana, rebel forces who received military support from neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. When government troops came to challenge them, there was fighting on the ground, rocket shelling of the park headquarters, carnage across the savanna. In addition to the elephant slaughter, thousands of zebras and other big animals were killed for food or trigger-happy amusement. A cease-fire halted the war in 1992, but poaching by professional hunters continued, and people in surrounding communities set traps for whatever edible animals remained. By the turn of the century, Gorongosa National Park had been wrecked.

Striking A Balance

The wildlife of Gorongosa National Park was decimated during Mozambique’s 1977-1992 civil war and the desperate years that followed. Now Mozambican and international conservationists are bringing the park back to life by bolstering the animal population and improving human lives by opening new facilities such as schools and clinics, and promoting sustainable farming in nearby communities.

BUFFER

ZONE

New

Facilities

AfRICA

MOZAMBIQUE

MOUNT

GORONGOSA

(GORONGOSA N.P.)

Gorongosa

N.P.

Vunduzi

PARK

BOUNDARY

Vila

Gorongosa

Muanza

Wildlife

Sanctuary

Mussinhá

Vinho

Mecombezi

Ponte

2018

SURVEY

AREA

20 mi

20 km

Proposed

corridor

12

GORONGOSA

N.P.

MARROMEU

NAT. RESERVE

Muanza

INDIAN

OCEAN

Buffer

zone

30 mi

Hunting

reserve

30 km

The park began managing Hunting Reserve 12 in 2017. By working with nearby communities, planners hope to create a wildlife corridor from Mount Gorongosa to the Indian Ocean.

RYAN T. WILLIAMS, NGM STAFF; JAMES CHESHIRE

AND OLIVER UBERTI

SOURCES: PAOLA BOULEY, DOMINIQUE GONÇALVES,

VASCO GALANTE, PIOTR NASKRECKI, AND MARC

STALMANS, GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK

Striking A Balance

The wildlife of Gorongosa National Park was decimated during Mozambique’s 1977-1992 civil war and the desperate years that followed. Now Mozambican and international conservationists are bringing the park back to life by bolstering the animal population and improving human lives by opening schools, clinics, and promoting sustainable farming in nearby communities.

TURNING

POINTS

AfRICA

1960

July 23, 1960

Gorongosa National Park established

MOZAMBIQUE

12

AREA

ENLARGED

War for

Independence

1970

1972 aerial

wildlife survey

The park began managing Hunting Reserve 12 in 2017. By working with nearby communities, planners hope to create a wildlife corridor from Mount Gorongosa to the Indian Ocean.

GORONGOSA

N.P.

MARROMEU

NAT. RESERVE

Proposed

corridor

Muanza

1980

Civil War

INDIAN

OCEAN

Buffer

zone

1990

30 mi

30 km

Hunting reserve

2000

50 Girls’ Clubs

Serving 2,000 girls in the buffer zone, these before- and after-school programs teach important life skills that help girls stay in school and avoid child marriage.

2000

New Facilities

Clinic

Well

Ranger post

School

Agriculture project

2002

Last aerial

survey before

restoration

8 mi

BUFFER

ZONE

8 km

2004

Greg Carr’s first

visit; Gorongosa

Restoration

Project begins

MOUNT

GORONGOSA

(GORONGOSA N.P.)

6,112 ft

1,863 m

Vunduzi

Murombodzi

waterfall

Coffee

plantation

Wildlife re-

population

effort begins

First health clinic

and school built

PARK

BOUNDARY

Bunga Inselbergs

Tourist bun-

galows open at

Chitengo Camp

2008

Northern

headquarters

(proposed)

Vila Gorongosa

Mobile

health clinics

launch

4,800 Visitors In 2018

Renewed conflict from 2014 to 2016 in central Mozambique halted what had been a rise in visitor numbers. With a tentative cease-fire, tourists are slowly returning to Gorongosa.

Community

Education

Center built

Mount Goron-

gosa added to

the park; buffer

zone established

Lake

Urema

Community

Education

Center

2012

Muanza

Camp

Muzimu

Mussinhá

Chitengo

Camp

WILDLIFE

SANCTUARY

E.O.Wilson

Biodiversity Lab

Park

entrance

E.O. Wilson

Biodiversity

Lab opens

2018

SURVEY

AREA

Enlarged

below

Mecombezi

Ponte

Vinho

2016

617 Locals Employed

The project also supports 375 community health workers, 1,200 Girls’ Club promoters and madrinhas (volunteer “godmothers”), and 5,000 small farmers.

Long-term agree-

ment with Carr

Foundation renewed

14 African

wild dogs

reintroduced

2020

RYAN T. WILLIAMS, NGM STAFF; JAMES CHESHIRE AND OLIVER UBERTI

SOURCES: PAOLA BOULEY, DOMINIQUE GONÇALVES, VASCO GALANTE, PIOTR NASKRECKI, AND MARC STALMANS, GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK

Circumstances were just as grim on the lands surrounding the park. About 100,000 people lived in what planners now call the buffer zone—mostly families growing corn and other subsistence crops, barely able to feed themselves, their children shorted on education and health care.

When the soil tired and the corn failed to thrive, the farmers would cut forest, burn the slash, and try again on a new patch. Eventually their cutting and planting expanded from the lower slopes of Mount Gorongosa—a granite massif that looms 6,112 feet above the western boundary of the park—to the higher, wetter zones. Once topped by thick rainforest, the mountain is the source for the Vunduzi River, which carries water to the park and its rich floodplain. By the start of the 21st century, large swaths of forest on the mountain and elsewhere throughout the 2,000-square-mile buffer zone had been stripped away.

The beginning of the end to this cycle of desperation and loss came in 2004, when the president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, visited Harvard University for a lecture at the invitation of an American named Greg Carr. In 1986 Carr and a friend had created a company called Boston Technology, which presciently offered ways to connect telephone systems with computers. Another successful enterprise followed, and by 1998, not yet 40, Carr found himself on the receiving end of an $800 million deal. “My hobby was to read paperbacks that I could buy for five bucks,” he told me during a conversation at Gorongosa. “It was more money than I needed.”

He established the Carr Foundation, a philanthropic entity, before he knew for certain what its purpose would be. But the works of Edward O. Wilson had awakened in him a keen interest in conservation. At the same time, he was immersing himself in the study of human rights and its great prophets and advocates, including Nelson Mandela. These two lines of study converged later when Carr learned that Mandela, by then president of South Africa, was collaborating with his fellow president, just across the border in Mozambique, to create “peace parks”—trans-boundary national parks for the conservation of wildlife and the benefit of local people.

“President Chissano loved national parks,” Carr said, and during Carr’s first visit to the place, in 2004, “he invites me to restore Gorongosa.”

Three years later, Carr signed a long-term agreement with the government. He would bring to the challenge not just his financial resources and management acumen but also a shared vision that Gorongosa could become a “human rights park.” That meant generating tangible benefits for the local people around it—in health care, education, agronomy, economic development—as well as protecting its landscape, its waters, its biological diversity in all forms. The National Geographic Society also funds conservation and science in and around the park, as well as community development and women’s education and empowerment projects.

On a wet Thursday morning in April, nine little girls jumped rope beneath a sheltering tree in Mecombezi Ponte, a village about 20 miles from the park. They wore dark blue T-shirts with “Rapariga do Clube” (Club Girl) emblazoned on the back and a small round seal saying “Parque Nacional da Gorongosa” on the front. In a semicircle around the girls stood 10 madrinhas, or volunteer “godmothers,” giving their time and quiet vigilance to help protect these young girls from the jeopardies they face: forced early marriage, frequent pregnancies, bad health, and truncated education.

The Girls’ Club of Mecombezi Ponte is one of 50 clubs organized and sponsored by the park to augment daily school sessions for some 2,000 girls throughout the buffer zone. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday focus on literacy. Tuesday’s agenda is health and reproduction. Thursdays, as Carr and I saw, are devoted to play. The women clapped and sang while the girls gleefully took turns in the twirling rope. Carr, sporting a T-shirt, shorts, and a two-day growth of beard, joined the line of girls and gamely tried to jump rope. The girls were better.

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Late in the dry season, a remnant pool in the Mussicadzi River channel attracts a mob of hungry birds, including storks, egrets, and hammerkops, along with a couple of thirsty waterbuck. Gorongosa’s avian richness swells further in the wet season, when nomads arrive to feed.

Carr regards the Girls’ Clubs as a critical part of the Gorongosa National Park resurrection. Deterring men from hunting the park’s wildlife—through alternative livelihoods as well as ranger enforcement—is important but insufficient. Women are the fulcrum. If the human population in the buffer zone continues to grow unabated, by way of early marriage of girls and large families, no effort within the park boundaries will be sufficient to protect its landscape and fauna. “But if girls are in school and women have opportunities,” Carr said, “then they will have two-child families.” It’s not an imposed solution. It’s part of a phenomenon resulting from women’s empowerment. “This is where human development and conservation merge,” he added. “Rights for women and children, poverty alleviation—is what Africa needs to save its national parks.”

Before departing, we witnessed a small ceremony. A sixth grader named Helena Francisco Tequesse stepped forward and, from a laminated card, read a declaration of 10 rights and 10 duties of children. “Children have the right to be fed and a duty not to waste food,” she read. “Children have the right to live in a healthy environment and a duty to care for the environment.”

“This is really exciting,” Carr said. “When I came here, the percentage of women in the buffer zone who could read—zero.” He asked the girls to say what they wanted to be when they grew up. Each stepped into the dirt circle, said her name, and answered with poise: a nurse, a midwife, a teacher, another nurse, a police officer. By now, with the rain finished and the morning turned sunny, the group had grown to about 30 girls and madrinhas. As we left, they resumed clapping and singing and dancing.

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Impalas graze around a termite mound in Gorongosa. Their numbers have more than doubled in recent years, reflecting available water and a shortage of predators, most notably leopards and wild dogs. A young male leopard recently tracked in the park appears to have left. “Once we anchor some females,” says carnivore specialist Paola Bouley, “the males should stick.”

Though it lies outside the park’s original boundary, Mount Gorongosa is an indispensable part of the Gorongosa ecosystem. The mountain not only captures rainfall and delivers it to the park’s floodplain, it also adds a diversity of altitude, climate, soil, vegetation, and wildlife to the greater Gorongosa whole. In 1969 a South African ecologist named Ken Tinley proposed that the mountain, as well as the plateau and coastal habitats stretching eastward from the park border, also richly various, be combined into a single integrated management area.

Tinley’s idea has taken hold as the “mountain to mangroves” vision of Gorongosa. In 2010 the highlands of Mount Gorongosa (above 700 meters, or about 3,000 feet) became part of the park. That mountaintop encompasses the source of the Vunduzi as well as some remote forest (still held by rebels, despite the most recent cease-fire), but across the lower elevations local people continued cutting, burning, and farming. They had little choice.

Keeping Count

The Gorongosa Restoration Project conducts biennial helicopter surveys of an approximately 750-square-mile area to track growing wildlife numbers as animals are brought in from South Africa and other parts of Mozambique.

GORONGOSA

NATIONAL

PARK

SURVEY

AREA

Waterbuck

The park was once dominated by buffalo; now waterbuck are the most abundant herbivore, accounting for 63 percent of the park’s animal biomass. With few predators and improved water access, the large antelope species is thriving along the park’s lakes and rivers.

57,016

3,372

2,200

1972

Civil War

2002

2018

Waterbuck counted

from aerial photos,

October 2018

Waterbuck

density

Chitengo Camp

WILDLIFE

SANCTUARY

Buffalo

Buffalo from other African parks were introduced to bolster Gorongosa’s numbers. Initially they were kept in an enclosed sanctuary. Once the first herd grew large enough, in 2014, the sanctuary fences were opened to let the buffalo roam.

13,286

1,021

90

1972

2002

2018

250

100

10

1

210 buffalo

released

between 2006

and 2011

Hippos

A separate flight down the Vunduzi and Urema Rivers, also in 2018, counted more than 500 hippos for the first time since before the civil war. Back then, there were more than 3,000 hippos thriving in the park.

3,483

546

160

1972

2002

2018

250

100

10

1

5 hippos

released

in 2008

Elephants

Most park elephants were killed for their ivory and meat during the war. Last October 544 elephants were counted, but the true figure is closer to 650, as six collared females and their families were hiding in vegetation.

2,542

650

300

1972

2002

2018

250

100

10

1

6 elephants

released

in 2008

Area

Enlarged

Betty

53-year-old

female,

no tusks

October

21, 2018

GPS collars help the park reduce human-elephant conflict. Rangers got a text alert when two collared females, Betty and Dora, and their herds entered farmland across the Púngoè and Urema Rivers.

October

13, 2018

Dora

40-year-old

female

with tusks

Predators Returning

The year 2018 saw 30 new lion cubs, the first

leopard sighting in a decade, and the reintro­-

duction of a pack of African wild dogs. Some

species of prey are overabundant due to low

predator numbers. But recent lion-tracking

data indicate that efforts to restore the

balance are working.

SUNGWE PRIDE

8 females

2 males

8 cubs

June 15, 2018

African wild dog

pack released

African Wild

Dog Range

RYAN T. WILLIAMS, NGM STAFF; JAMES CHESHIRE

AND OLIVER UBERTI

SOURCES: PAOLA BOULEY, DOMINIQUE GONÇALVES,

VASCO GALANTE, PIOTR NASKRECKI, AND MARC

STALMANS, GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK

KEEPING COUNT

The Gorongosa Restoration Project conducts biennial helicopter surveys of an approximately 750-square-mile area to track growing wildlife numbers as animals are brought in from South Africa and other parts of Mozambique.

GORONGOSA

NATIONAL

PARK

SURVEY

AREA

1972

2002

2018

13,286

3,483

2,542

1,021

546

650

90

300

160

Buffalo

Buffalo from other African parks were introduced to bolster Gorongosa’s numbers. Initially they were kept in an enclosed sanctuary. Once the first herd grew large enough, in 2014, the sanctuary fences were opened to let the buffalo roam.

Hippos

A separate flight down the Vunduzi and Urema Rivers, also in 2018, counted more than 500 hippos for the first time since before the civil war. Back then, there were more than 3,000 hippos thriving in the park.

Elephants

Most park elephants were killed for their ivory and meat during the war. Last October 544 elephants were counted, but the true figure is closer to 650, as six collared females and their families were hiding in vegetation.

6 elephants

released

in 2008

5 hippos

released

in 2008

Chitengo Camp

210 buffalo

released

between 2006

and 2011

Individuals counted

during 2018

helicopter survey

1

10

100

250

2018

SURVEY

AREA

57,016

4 mi

4 km

3,372

2,200

1972

Civil War

2002

2018

Waterbuck

The park was once dominated by buffalo; now waterbuck are the most abundant herbivore, accounting for 63 percent of the park’s animal biomass. With few predators and improved water access, the large antelope species is thriving along the park’s lakes and rivers

58 waterbuck

counted in four

aerial photos

1 waterbuck

250

50

5

100

10

Waterbuck counted

from aerial photos,

October 2018

5,867 SPECIES DOCUMENTED

In addition to aerial counts, the park began to conduct annual biodiversity surveys in 2013 to catalog all of its species. Notable finds: the “Chewbacca bat” and a cave-dwelling frog.

Sungwe lion pride

Lion house

(abandoned 1940s

structure)

Range

SUNGWE

PRIDE

8 females

2 males

8 cubs

Lake

Urema

African wild

dogs

1

5

3

2

4

Range

March 29, 2018

Leopard sighting

June 15, 2018

African wild dog

pack released

Chitengo

Camp

WILDLIFE

SANCTUARY

(UNFENCED in 2014)

Flavia

April 20, 2015

1

Betty

53-year-old

female,

no tusks

Flavia, an adult lion-

ess from Sungwe pride

is collared at

the lion house.

June 15, 2016

2

October 21, 2018

She gives birth to

three cubs.

April 20, 2018

3

Dora

40-year-old

female

with tusks

She gives birth to four

cubs and later adopts

another from an

older lioness.

GPS collars help the park reduce human-elephant conflict. Rangers got a text alert when two collared females, Betty and Dora, and their herds entered farmland across the Púngoè and Urema Rivers.

September 10, 2018

4

Flavia teaches her cubs

how to kill a waterbuck.

October 13, 2018

5

October 29, 2018

The African wild dogs

come near her cubs; she

chases them off.

RYAN T. WILLIAMS, NGM STAFF; JAMES CHESHIRE AND OLIVER UBERTI

SOURCES: PAOLA BOULEY, DOMINIQUE GONÇALVES, VASCO GALANTE, PIOTR NASKRECKI, AND MARC STALMANS, GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK

Soon afterward, the park’s forestry manager—a Mozambican named Pedro Muagura—made a suggestion at a meeting: Why not grow coffee on mountainside plots that have already been deforested? It could be shade-grown, beneath replanted native trees, giving local people a bit of income as well as restoring the forest. Muagura fought off initial skepticism and is now the warden of the park. And his coffee idea, despite a flare-up of the war in 2014-16, when government forces advanced up the mountain to attack the rebel holdout, is blooming nicely.

Quentin Haarhoff, the park’s chief coffee expert, farmed coffee in Zimbabwe—until the day, he told me, when President Robert Mugabe made white farmers unwelcome, and he left at the point of a Kalashnikov rifle. We were driving up to the coffee project area on a steep two-track that climbs the massif’s southern slope, passing fields of sorghum and corn, a few houses and huts, a patch of pineapples. Big hardwood trees, felled by RENAMO soldiers to block the road and thwart government vehicles, had been pulled aside and left rotting. Slightly higher, we reached the hospitable elevation for coffee.

“This mountain has got a fantastic environment,” Haarhoff said. Good humidity, temperatures are cool and don’t fluctuate greatly, and there’s no frost. “You try to do this in Zimbabwe, and your coffee would be dead by now.”

Growing coffee beans and restoring forest in an on-again, off-again war zone is still daunting. But the local farmers embrace the enterprise—as evidenced by the women who came out at night and watered the young coffee plants even during the renewed fighting in 2014. Those plants survived and now flourish, along with many more.

We parked the Jeep and proceeded by foot, crossing a small river on stepping-stones and inspecting a tree-shaded nursery of 260,000 coffee starts, each one growing from a scoop of soil in a potlike plastic sleeve. Farther upslope, we moved amid producing trees, bush-size and healthy, planted in cross-slope rows and shaded by acacias and other trees. The park now employs 180 people on this work, Haarhoff explained, as a demonstration project. The plan is to show how it’s done—coffee plants, shaded by native trees, mulched with compost, weeded by hand, with vegetables, fruits, and legumes as secondary crops between the rows—and then to supply training, tools, coffee starts, and seeds, and to offer a good price for the harvested coffee, which is bought by Produtos Naturais, a natural-products enterprise within the park’s sustainable finance division.

Produtos Naturais processes the coffee at its new factory nearby and markets the roasted beans to Mozambican wholesalers. The coffee and other premium cash crops (such as cashews) will give local people better livelihoods and wean farmers away from slash-and-burn corn, thereby not just protecting what’s left of the mountain forest but also reforesting areas that have been cut. “I’m not a scientist,” said Haarhoff, “but the birds have come back; the bees have come back. You can just see nature breathing a sigh of relief.”

Nature is resilient, but its sighs of relief, its trends of recovery and resurgence, require more than reforestation of mountainsides and protections against poaching. A pack of African wild dogs (a native predator, lost during the war) was released into the park in 2018, after weeks of acclimation in a large pen. A small herd of zebras also trotted cautiously from their corral into a trailer and then into the wild. And a solitary leopard was spotted.

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After a few years of acclimation and breeding in a fenced sanctuary, zebras load into a trailer to travel to a release site in the park, where they’ll face the freedom and peril of the wild. The park’s population was almost eliminated during the war.

Black rhinos once roamed Gorongosa as well, but that difficult reintroduction, with high risks of attracting commercial poachers, will have to wait. Full recovery takes time and space. The time dimension is recognized in a long-term agreement between Carr’s group and the government, renewed in 2018 for 25 years. Of course, even 25 years is just a beginning in ecological terms.

The significance of space—bigger protected areas generally embrace more diversity and greater ecological wholeness—helps explain why Carr and his colleagues, including partners within the Mozambican government, favor further enlarging Gorongosa in line with that early mountain-to-mangroves model. They envision a greater Gorongosa ecosystem—all of it protected or sustainably managed, encompassing successful farmers and other local enterprises— connecting Mount Gorongosa in the west, the park in the southern Rift Valley, large blocks of hardwood forest on the Cheringoma Plateau just east of the valley, and the unique coastal woodlands and swamps on the south side of the Zambezi River Delta. The coastal piece of that puzzle already enjoys some protection as Marromeu National Reserve, a soggy and roadless wilderness rich with African buffalo and birds.

On another fine morning, Carr and I lifted off in the JetRanger with Marc Stalmans, director of the park’s science department, and headed east toward Marromeu, passing low over savanna, then palm forest, then the thicker forest of the plateau. Flying over this landscape in 50 years, Carr said, Dominique Gonçalves or someone else of her generation would see wildlife in huge round numbers: 10,000 elephants, 1,000 lions. As for buffalo, maybe 50,000.

“Difficult but doable,” Carr added. “I like the idea that it’s just on the edge of possible.”

“Difficult” is an understatement. The latest aerial count of wildlife in the park, in October 2018, revealed continuing increases for many species—buffalo up, kudu up, impala way up. In addition to the reintroduction of African wild dogs, populations of zebras, wildebeests, and eland have grown. Patrol sweeps by rangers—261 of them, including a small but growing number of women—have kept poaching to a minimum. The latest counts show that Carr’s goals are a long way off, but if the edge of the possible can ever be realized, it will be here, in Gorongosa National Park.

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Dominique Gonçalves, a young Mozambican ecologist and National Geographic fellow, runs Gorongosa’s elephant program. The park’s scientists and managers are multinational, but more and more Mozambicans are filling leadership roles. The place is evolving toward the guiding vision of a “human rights park,” serving nature and people, overseen by Mozambicans, shared with the world.

Pingo lowered the helicopter onto the beach at Marromeu, and during a brief stop there, he and Stalmans and I talked about African buffalo while Carr wandered off. Buffalo need grass, water, and occasionally shade, Stalmans said, but not much else. Before the civil war, there were 55,000 here in the Marromeu National Reserve. After the war, just 2,000. And those 2,000 buffalo survived only because the soggy coastal terrain made them so hard to hunt.

By this time, we noticed that Carr had ditched his shoes and waded far out into the surf, nudging at limits, as he often does, like a little kid. Returning, he started to conjure a beach lodge, right at this site, bringing tourists to enjoy the coast and the wildlife, plus a marine research station, together anchoring the great sweep of variegated ecosystem: the mountain, the valley, the lake, the plateau, the coastal wetlands, the mangroves, the beach.

“Put it together,” Carr enthused, “and you’ve got something extraordinary.”

We climbed back into the helicopter. Whirling off, we passed above a sizable herd of buffalo, dark and sleek and each with a couple of egrets, blazing white, perched on its back. The birds rose up and away, spooked by our noise, like a flock of guardian angels returning to base.

David Quammen’s latest book is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. Charlie Hamilton James specializes in wildlife and conservation issues, particularly in Africa and South America.

This article is supported by the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which is working with the National Geographic Society and others across the globe to help protect 30 percent of our planet by 2030.
In March 2019, Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique. Regarded as one of the worst natural disasters on record in the Southern Hemisphere, it has negatively affected millions of people, including those in the communities around Gorongosa Park. Go here to learn more about how you can help and to donate to relief efforts.