Mozambique, Africa – In 2005 a tourist arrived for his first ever visit to Gorongosa. The Rangers at the entry gate suggested that he turn around because there would be nothing to see. Stubbornly, he persisted. He spent six hours driving around Gorongosa and saw, precisely, 1 baboon, 1 warthog, and 1 bushbuck. Nine years later, that same tourist visited again and had a dramatically better experience – our recent aerial census gives a hint why.
Lioness and waterbucks at Gorongosa’s floodplain. Photograph courtesy of Michael dos Santos.
Between Oct 25th and November 4th, Gorongosa’s Director of Scientific Services, Marc Stalmans, led an extensive aerial wildlife count of the southern and central parts of Gorongosa National Park. These areas represent about 50% of the park but are considered to be the best habitat with the highest animal density of wildlife. The results of the count reveal an extraordinary rebound in the populations of many animal species. (Animal numbers were decimated during Mozambique’s 16-year War of Destabilization from 1977- 1992.) A total of 71,086 herbivores of 19 species were counted. The results represented an enormous African conservation success story, and a major milestone for the Gorongosa Restoration Project – a 20- year public-private partnership between the Government of Mozambique and the US-based Greg Carr Foundation.
Dr. Stalmans is thrilled with the results:
“The count confirms that wildlife populations are recovering rapidly in the park. There has been a marked increase in density since 2007 for species such as waterbuck, impala and kudu. The waterbuck have recovered to what is likely the single largest population in any protected area in Africa.”
According to Dr. Stalmans, the results also bode very well for the continued growth of these populations in the future. “The results of the count indicate that all large herbivore species, with the exception of the crawshayi subspecies of zebra, now occur in numbers that are sufficient for their continued recovery and viability.”
Not all species were doing as well as expected, however. Blue wildebeest numbers fell below expectations. Lion predation could be one reason for this. However, illegal hunters are known to target wildebeest for their tails. Either or both factors could account for the species lower-than-expected numbers. Dr. Stalmans witnessed the effects of illegal hunting first-hand during the survey – two hunters were caught red-handed with two freshly killed Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. Stalmans also noted commercial logging and agriculture in some border areas of the park. Dr. Stalmans warns, “Despite the very encouraging growth in wildlife numbers, it is clear that illegal activities remain a serious threat. Law enforcement efforts need to be sustained and even increased in many part of the park.”
Despite evidence of the ongoing challenges of protecting Gorongosa, the survey gave everyone on the Gorongosa team a huge morale boost, particularly the Department of Conservation, led by Pedro Muagura. It is Muagura’s 130-rangers that patrol the park day-after-day, protecting the animals from illegal hunting. Pedro Muagura told us: “I used to come to Gorongosa in the end of the 90’s with my students from the Agricultural School of Chimoio and it was very depressing because we could see a beautiful Park, beautiful flora, plenty of fresh water but no animals. We need to stay more than one month to see a sole waterbuck or even some elephant dung and the students couldn’t do any animal identification… Even baboons were difficult to spot. Now everything changed and anyone just on the road to Chitengo, even before doing a proper game-drive will see hundreds of baboons and at least several different species of antelopes.”
Matriarch leads elephant herd at Gorongosa’s floodplain. Photograph courtesy of Jeff Trollip.
The results will inform future management decisions in the park, and allow scientists to predict how the ecosystem will recover. The restoration of Gorongosa presents science with a unique opportunity: to watch what happens to a million acres of wilderness when most of the large animals are removed. The lessons learned could form the basis for restoration projects all over the world. As Stalmans notes: “The recovering wildlife occurs in proportions that are very different from those documented in historical times. The system has switched from being dominated by buffalo to a system dominated by waterbuck. There are interesting research opportunities that need to be taken up in order to help with developing a better understanding of the system dynamics that will assist with management and decision-making.”
About Gorongosa National Park and the Gorongosa Restoration Project
Gorongosa National Park is Mozambique’s premier wildlife national park located at the southern end of the Great East African Rift Valley. It is home to some of the biologically richest and most geologically diverse ecosystems on the African continent. Its border encompasses caves and deep gorges of the Cheringoma Plateau, vast savannahs of the Valley floor, and the precious rainforest of Mt. Gorongosa. However, the ecosystem was profoundly stressed during Mozambique’s civil conflict (1977-1992). Following the war, in 1993-96, illegal hunters added to the destruction, and many of Gorongosa’s large animal populations were reduced by 90% or more.
In 2005 the Carr Foundation, a U.S. not-for-profit organization founded by American philanthropist and conservationist Gregory C. Carr, joined with the Government of Mozambique under a memorandum of understanding to restore Gorongosa National Park. The partnership, known as “Gorongosa Restoration Project” (GRP), is one of most ambitious Park restoration efforts ever attempted (the restoration has also benefitted from support from USAID). The agreement promotes dual goals of ecosystem restoration and improved human development for the local communities. To date the GRP has revitalized anti-poaching teams; rebuilt park infrastructure; conducted biological monitoring; reintroduced grazers (zebra/wildebeest/buffalo/elephant/hippopotamus); established schools, education centers, medical clinics and agriculture programs; and in 2010 the Government of Mozambique expanded the park’s boundaries to include Mt. Gorongosa and a 3,300 sq km buffer zone around the park.