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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Dominique Gonçalves’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.