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Ravaged by civil war, how a national park was restored in Mozambique | Environment

Ravaged by civil war, how a national park was restored in Mozambique | Environment

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Gorongosa, Mozambique – In Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique, veterinarian Mercia Angela cradles a baby pangolin in her arms. Perhaps aware that it is safe, it reaches out and gently pulls her hair.

“Our special unit of rangers who investigate people trying to sell pangolins rescued this one from a trafficker, and now we’re on a journey to rehabilitate it, preparing it for its eventual release back into the wild,” she said about the pangopup.

Pangolins are a keystone species, meaning they play a critical role in shaping their habitats and altering ecosystems. But they are also the world’s most trafficked mammal – often hunted for their meat, skin, and even scales, which some Asian countries believe have medicinal properties. According to the World Wildlife Fund, pangolin skin is also in demand in the United States and Mexico for processing into products like boots, belts and bags. Four African variations of the pangolin are listed as vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Some 20 years ago, it’s possible this pangopup – christened Larissa by Angela and her team – would not have survived or been rescued at all, as Gorongosa’s wildlife and infrastructure were ravaged amid the country’s post-independence civil war that pitted the rebel Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo) against government forces.

“The fighting was all over the country, but Gorongosa [in Sofala province, central Mozambique] was the epicentre of the war as Renamo established their headquarters here at Casa Banana, near the park boundary,” Gorongosa National Park Warden Pedro Muagura, who represents the Ministry of Environment, told Al Jazeera. “The rebels wanted game meat from the park for food, and they killed elephants for ivory, which they exchanged for weapons from South Africa.”

In the early days of the 1977-1992 war, then-white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia backed the rebels in Mozambique, taking advantage of internal differences to destabilise their neighbour, which was harbouring groups fighting against their racist governments.

Military police in Gorongosa, Mozambique
Government military police patrol the streets of Gorongosa Village in central Mozambique [File: Grant Lee Neuenburg/Reuters]

The civil war left some one million people dead, displaced several million more, and ruined the country’s economy.

In Gorongosa, the park’s large mammals also suffered during the conflict as both sides slaughtered hundreds of animals for food and trade. Hungry soldiers shot many more thousands of zebras, wildebeest, buffaloes, and other ungulates. They also killed lions and other large predators for sport or trophies.

Widespread poaching also contributed to the decimation of the wildlife. Muagura said that while snares and gin traps may have been set by people for food, they were non-selective and killed whatever would have sprung them. Thousands of snares were cleared from all over the park after the war.

‘Fundamentals’ in place

After the 1992 peace accord that ended the war, though the government recognised the park’s value, the money to rehabilitate it was unavailable. In 1994, the African Development Bank began a five-year effort to rebuild Gorongosa’s infrastructure and restore its wildlife with help from the European Union and the IUCN.

Enter Greg Carr, an American tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist who made his millions starting companies such as Boston Technology, founded in 1986 and modifying voicemail technology to make it less expensive. After he and his business partner sold the company in 1998, Carr got involved in other tech ventures, including co-founding Africaonline, an internet service provider.

But after making his millions, Carr was still searching for meaning. In 1998, he launched the Carr Foundation and a year later founded the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

In 2004, he met then-Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, a strong advocate for conservation who addressed the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Their meeting led to a partnership that would change the fate of Gorongosa National Park, paving the way for its rehabilitation and the return of its wildlife.

Greg Carr
American philanthropist Greg Carr got involved in a project to restore the park after a meeting with Mozambique’s former president [Courtesy of Gorongosa National Park]

Chissano invited Carr to Mozambique. “I spent two years studying Mozambique, asking myself, ‘How can I be helpful?’” Carr, now 65, told Al Jazeera at Gorongosa National Park. As someone who has always been positive about nature’s ability to fix itself with minimum human intervention, he settled on funding the park’s restoration.

“The fundamentals of this ecosystem were in place, meaning the rivers were flowing, and the soil was good and the grass was growing. If you stop whatever the disturbance is in a natural area, you have a very good chance that nature will know how to restore itself,” he said.

However, protecting the flora and fauna was not the only goal for Carr. “It was essential to me that the project was not simply to manage the national park or restore the wildlife, but to create employment and help the communities that live next to the park and share the ecosystem,” he said. “And that’s in my contract with the government.”

Carr acknowledges the post-war recovery efforts, but says they were hamstrung because those involved “didn’t have a lot of money”. His Gorongosa Restoration Project signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mozambican government to restore the park. He committed $36m to the project in 2004.

Rewilding Gorongosa

Some 20 years after its inception, the project has succeeded in its mission to rewild the park, rehabilitate its infrastructure, revive tourism and improve the lives of communities in the so-called buffer zone, which is conterminous with the park.

A 1994 survey, the first since the civil war, counted 100 elephants, 300 reedbuck, 100 waterbuck, and only a handful of zebra and small antelope. A 2022 aerial survey (PDF), shows a significant rebound in the numbers of most species.

Some of the populations have grown because of the protection of the park. At the same time, some, including buffalo, wildebeest, hippos, wild dogs and jackals, have been reintroduced into the park from South Africa and other wildlife areas in Mozambique. Still, Carr is working to get more animals in. “I would like to get some more zebras, more leopards,” he said. “We have some, but we don’t have enough.”

Pedro Muagura
Gorongosa National Park Warden Pedro Muagura is a crucial link between the park and local communities [Courtesy of Gorongosa National Park]

Park warden Muagura, described by Carr as “the centre of the passion and the spirit here for biodiversity who understands the landscape and the wildlife”, is excited about the increase in painted dogs. “Of all the carnivores, I’m very impressed with painted dogs. We reintroduced 25 to 30 of them; we now have more than 200,” he said.

However, one animal that may seem conspicuous by its absence in Gorongosa is the giraffe. The tallest mammal on Earth is not among those in the park and has never been. According to Vasco Galante, Gorongosa’s director of communications, this is unlikely to change. “We reintroduce animals to the park,” he said, “not introduce them.” Muagura concurred: “The locals do not even have a name for the giraffe.”

Amid the success of the conservation efforts, other problems have also emerged. For instance, there has been increased human-wildlife conflict in areas bordering the park. Animals, primarily elephants, sometimes cross the park’s unfenced boundary into surrounding villages to raid crops, destroy granaries to reach stored grain, or attack people.

Strategies to mitigate the problem include hanging pieces of metal roofing sheets on a fence. “The elephants do not like the sun or moon’s reflection on the sheets,” Larissa Sousa, the park’s associate director for communications, told Al Jazeera.

Beehive fences are also employed. These involve hanging beehives on a rope at known elephant crossings. On coming into contact with the fence, the elephant shakes the hive, causing the bees to come out stinging. Elephants are so scared of bees that just hearing the buzz of the tiny insects can trigger a stampede. Honey from the fences forms a part of the honey-producing project, which harvested nine tons in 2023.

A third deterrent is a rope soaked in chilli and creosote. “It’s an effective repellent; elephants don’t like the smell,” Sousa said. However, she says the fencing only covers 30km, considered crossing hot spots out of the 4,000-square-km (1,550-square-mile) park. But should elephants breach the boundary and make it into villages while looking for food, the project has constructed reinforced granaries for some villages’ households.

Local communities involved

The restoration project is invested in improving the livelihoods of those who share that park’s boundaries, Carr said, noting: “We spend probably two-thirds or three-quarters of our budget outside the park.”

Preschool children in Mozambique
Preschool children in Gorongosa [Ish Mafundikwa/Al Jazeera]

He gets particularly animated when the discussion turns to education. “We are working in a hundred schools with the Ministry of Education, helping to train teachers to enhance the quality of education,” he said. The project has and is still building schools.

Parts of the park are susceptible to flooding due to the regular cyclones that hit Mozambique, such as 2019’s Idai. The schools the project is currently building are climate resilient, meaning they can withstand floods and provide shelter when a storm hits. “If there is a problem, they can go to the school, where there’ll be clean water, medicine, and food,” said Carr.

The project funds preschools and girls’ clubs, the latter encouraging girls to stay in school and pursue careers in a country where, according to US Agency for International Development (USAID), only 50 percent of girls continue with schooling beyond the fifth grade and just one percent attend college.

The park is also home to the Edward O Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory, which aims to protect biodiversity and offer research and training opportunities for students and conservation leaders. The lab has eight Mozambican technicians, five of them young women. It also hosts Mozambican interns and scientists from around the world and runs a two-year master’s programme for Mozambican students.

Additionally, the project has convinced surrounding communities that it is a partner in their development. Alberto Zacharias, 68, heads the Committee for Resource Management in a local community. He lauds the project for providing education, fixing mobile healthcare facilities and helping support local agricultural activities by providing technical support and inputs. The communities also benefit from the 20 percent of tourism proceeds via the project. “We used part of the last disbursement to drill a borehole for a community that had water issues,” Zacharias told Al Jazeera.

The communities also act as the authorities’ eyes and ears regarding wildlife poaching. Zacharias said that initially not being allowed to hunt for food felt like “having a pebble in your shoe”. But now that the project has provided local residents with alternatives to feed themselves, they are on the front line of preventing the killing of wildlife.

The main entrance to the Gorongosa National Park
The main entrance to the Gorongosa National Park [Ish Mafundikwa/Al Jazeera]

“We get most of the information on unlawful activities in the park from the people because they see Gorongosa National Park as their property,” said warden Muagura, who, as a local who speaks the language and understands the culture, is a crucial link between the Carr Foundation and the communities.

Tourism and employment

Despite locals buying into the park’s and the government’s conservation idea, the continued capture and trafficking of pangolins shows that not everyone shares that vision.

To help, Gorongosa employs armed rangers to protect its flora and fauna. While the force welcomes both sexes, only 11 of the 247 rangers patrolling the park are women.

Emilia Jacinto Augusto, 27, is one of them. She has been a ranger for eight years and told Al Jazeera that a few women who sign up make it through the 59-day training. “You need to be tough, not only physically but mentally,” she said.

Of the several income-generating initiatives by the Gorongosa Restoration Project, the shade-grown coffee project is among the most successful. On the 1,863-metre (6,112-foot) Mount Gorongosa, slash-and-burn cultivation had threatened the rainforest. So Muagura, a trained forester, started a reforestation project using indigenous trees. At first, it hardly took off as the locals needed to understand the benefits, so Muagura hatched a plan to incentivise the farmers to plant coffee along with the trees.

The concept was that the Gorongosa Restoration Project would buy the arabica coffee cherries from the farmers and process them. “The uptake was slow,” said Juliasse Sabao, the project supervisor. “We started with a mere 12 farmers in 2014; there are now 893 farmers growing coffee and trees on the mountain’s slopes.”

Over the years, the new trees have pushed back the human-induced thinning on the mountain’s slopes. A factory in a nearby village processes the beans into export-quality coffee, providing employment for locals. In 2023, the project exported nine tons of green coffee to South Africa and the United Kingdom. It also promotes and supports the growing of cashew nuts and chilli peppers, high-value cash crops from which farmers can earn some money.

A veterinarian holds a pangolin
Gorongosa veterinarian Mercia Angela holds Larissa the pangolin [Ish Mafundikwa/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, tourism is rebounding in the area. The mountain’s rainforest, a favourite bird-watching destination, is home to the green-headed oriole – the only place where the bird is found.

In Gorongosa National Park, tourists can choose from three camps – from bungalows and basic tents to a luxury riverside lodge. Conde Nast Traveller has listed its high-end Muzimu Lodge as one of the best places to go in Africa in 2024.

Carr’s dream of providing jobs has also been a success. The project now employs more than 1,800 people – 99 percent Mozambicans – and is the biggest employer in Sofala province. Some live at the park’s Chitengo headquarters, and others from nearby areas are bussed in daily.

The current agreement between the Carr Foundation and the Mozambican government, in which Carr pledged $36m, expires in 2043, but in 2022, he told the CBS News programme 60 Minutes that he had already spent more than $100m. He dismisses concerns about the sustainability of the public-private partnership and is confident the work he started will outlive him and the agreement.

Carr pointed to the groundswell of support from partners, including governments, donors, and humanitarian organisations, and told Al Jazeera that he is contributing $6m of the $40m 2024 budget. He estimates that over the 40 years he has committed to Gorongosa, he will spend $200m.

With that, the project’s sustainability seems to be guaranteed at least until 2040. That’s good news – both for the 200,000 people who live in the park’s surroundings and for animals like Larissa the pangolin, who will be released into the wild once Angela and her team decide she is ready to fend for herself.

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