Mozambique’s war-hit Gorongosa Park revives

2010-12-27 11:43

MAPUTO – As warthogs play in the mud behind him, park ranger Charles Pereira Aranje scans the savannah for poachers while waterbuck and reedbuck antelopes graze in the grass.

Despite 95 percent of its wildlife having been wiped out during Mozambique’s 16-year civil war, the Gorongosa National Park is back on its feet and Aranje, 62, who started working there in the 1970s, wants it to stay that way.

“There used to be many animals; many elephants, hippos, zebras and other species,” says Aranje.

The once popular holiday destination for Europeans during Portuguese colonial rule was closed when civil war broke out after independence, and by the time it was reopened when fighting ended in 1992, widescale poaching had severely depleted its game.

“I was shocked, because as we walked around surveying the park we found nothing,” says Aranje.

 “The only living animals we found were monkeys, and even then they kept 100 metres or 200 metres away.”

Ten years later, American philanthropist Greg Carr, who made a fortune from selling voicemail systems to telephone companies, backed a major repopulation programme at the park.

Since then 200 wildebeest, 180 buffalo, six elephants and six rhinos have been introduced with the help of the nearby Marromeu Nature Reserve and South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

In 2008 the Mozambican government and Carr struck a 20-year co-management deal for Gorongosa.

By the time it expires he will have invested $40 million (about R270 million) since his initial involvement began.

The park’s steady resurgence is even allowing it to share some of its gene stock with other reserves in Mozambique.

When this happens at Gorongosa, wildlife is darted from fast-flying helicopters or chased into encampments using off-road vehicles, before the animals are transported thousands of kilometres overland to new homes.

It is a perilous and expensive exercise, but not nearly as complicated as dealing with the communities bordering the park, whose people have violated its territory for decades.

“To recover the integrity of the park is the most challenging task,” said its conservation director, Carlos Lopes Pereira.
“The most important activity for this park is to prevent poaching.”

Mozambique’s government enlarged the park by 10 percent this year to 4 067 square kilometres to protect it from poaching and illegal felling of vegetation.

Several park areas were reclassified under a new 10-kilometre buffer zone around the perimeter, where 200 000 locals can hunt and farm.

Park authorities donated new land outside Gorongosa and built schools and clinics to encourage people to move away, but 5 000 people still live inside the park and they often come into conflict with its wildlife.

“It is easier making a living on the existing resources, but fishing and hunting are not sustainable,” said Gorongosa’s director of community relations, Mateus Muthemba.

“We try to explain to them that from the point of view of human security and to have better lives it is not sustainable to stay inside the park.”

The surrounding communities receive 20 percent of the park’s revenues, but the 400 jobs the park provides are just a positive blip on a horizon of poverty, although five new ecotourism tenders might create more jobs.

“Some expect to get help from the park, but others get caught because of poaching,” says Tiago Antonio Ndaipa, a 22-year-old Gorongosa scout. “They know the park well, then they go and poach.”

Officials believe in the park’s rebirth, however, and believe that through their efforts it will one day regain its former wealth of wildlife.

“I think it will recover,” says Aranje. “Maybe not in my lifetime, but my children might one day see the park in its former glory.” 

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