War and Redemption in Gorongosa
Mozambique's astonishingly diverse national park was decimated during a bloody uprising. Now it is rebounding, with the aid of some tiny helpers.
Near the center of Chitengo Camp stands a 10-foot-tall, bullet-pocked slab of concrete, once part of the wall of a restaurant. It is a remnant of the 1973 attack by Frelimo insurgents during the war of independence against Portugal. Today it serves as a monument to two achievements—the birth of a free Mozambique and the rebirth of its premier nature reserve.
The restaurants and cottages were filled that day with staff and guests, the latter mostly Portuguese nationals. Suddenly a line of guerrillas emerged from the edge of the woods and began firing into the sides of the buildings, the electric lights, the windows, taking care not to hit any of the people scurrying for shelter. Their desired effect was achieved: The next day Chitengo Camp was empty. The Portuguese rulers of Mozambique, if they needed it, were further persuaded of the seriousness of the independence movement.
The military campaign against colonial rule had been launched by Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) on September 25, 1964. It was met by the Portuguese rulers with superior arms, scorched earth, and the forced settlement of rural people in fortified gulags. Portuguese secret police suppressed Frelimo activity within the cities and villages by means of imprisonment, torture, and executions. By determined incursions the Frelimo forces nevertheless progressed from their Tanzanian base into the northern provinces of Niassa and Cabo Delgado, and eventually turned the tide of battle. When the regime of the dictator Marcello Caetano was overturned by a coup in Lisbon in 1974, the Portuguese finally faced the inevitable and ceded the country to a transitional Frelimo government. The People’s Republic of Mozambique was formally proclaimed on June 25, 1975.
To have a black communist state next door was anathema to Mozambique’s neighbors South Africa and Rhodesia. The principal part of their response, exceeding even an embargo, was the creation of Renamo (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana). On paper an indigenous anticommunist army, it was in reality a well-armed military force launched by the Ian Smith colonial government in Rhodesia with the sole aim of overthrowing the Frelimo regime.
When Rhodesia was liberated in 1980, changing its name to Zimbabwe, South Africa took over as the principal Renamo sponsor. The mission of Renamo from start to finish was to achieve victory on the battlefield if possible, but failing that to destroy whatever infrastructure was left in Mozambique. The total impact, to put it bluntly, was a holocaust. About a million Mozambicans died, and several million more were forced into exile, moving to refugee camps in Malawi, Tanzania, and Frelimo-occupied parts of Mozambique.
Gorongosa National Park, located well back in the interior near the center of Mozambique, was close to a headquarters of the Renamo forces, and thereby was a frequent battleground. The park is a global treasure. It has the greatest variety of habitats of any park in Mozambique, and one of the most diverse in the entire world. In the whole of the park have been found so far 398 bird species (about 250 are residents), compared with 914 in all of North America; 123 mammals, of which one indigenous species is Homo sapiens, and which is well above the 67 species living, for example, in Yellowstone National Park; 34 reptiles; and 43 amphibians.
The Renamo units at Gorongosa, who were forced to live off the land, hunted its wildlife for food. By the time the war came to a close in 1992, the wildlife of the park, especially those animals over roughly 10 kilograms (about 20 pounds), had been decimated. During the political and economic crisis that followed, while the park lay unprotected, poachers and professional hunters laid waste to the remnant, with much of the meat obtained ending up for sale in the coastal cities. Between 1972 and 2001, the number of Cape buffaloes counted in the park fell from 13,000 to just 15; the wildebeest fell from 6,400 to 1; hippos went from 3,500 to 44; and instead of 3,300 zebras there were 12. Elephant herds and lion prides were reduced by 80 to 90 percent. Of hyenas, black and white rhinos, and wild dogs, there were none.
In 2004 American businessman and philanthropist Greg Carr found in his first visit that he could walk or drive all day without seeing a living thing except birds. The same year, and in a contract with the Mozambican government, he committed funds, transmitted through the nonprofit Gregory C. Carr Foundation, to launch the restoration of Gorongosa National Park. When I visited the park in 2011–2012, Carr was constantly on the scene as he guided the complex operations of ecological restoration. These included the expansion of the summit rain forest on Mount Gorongosa by the planting of millions of tree seedlings, while rebuilding the tourist center to make the park financially self-sustaining. Carr provided hundreds of new jobs for villages in the surrounding region, and better homes outside the park as an option for those who were living inside.
The megafauna of Gorongosa National Park was growing swiftly. The rate at which this was occurring varied greatly by species: Elephants were at about 15 percent of their original numbers, whereas waterbuck had drawn to above their prewar maximum. Most wildlife species were still below half the carrying capacity. Another several decades may be needed for Gorongosa to return to its old preeminence, but given the persisting soundness of its undergirding plants and invertebrates, which survived the war intact, I believe this will surely come to pass.
My own checklist of native mammals seen while searching for ants during my five weeks’ visit over two years (a naturalist without his nose on the ground looking for ants, as is my habit, and carrying powerful field glasses, would do a lot better) includes these species: porcupine, African elephant, hippopotamus, bushpig, warthog, blue wildebeest, oribi, impala, sable antelope, nyala, bushbuck, waterbuck, lion, serval cat, African civet, large-spotted genet, mongoose, bush baby, olive baboon, and vervet monkey. And human beings.