By Johannes Myburgh (AFP)
GORONGOSA NATIONAL PARK, Mozambique — 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 being killed during Mozambique’s 16-year civil war, the Gorongosa National Park is back on its feet and Aranje, 62, who started working here in the 1970s wants it to stay that way.
“There used to be many animals. Many elephants, hippos, zebras and other species,” he says.
But 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 had re-opened when the fighting ended in 1992, wide-scale poaching had severely depleted its numbers.
“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 rhinoceros have been introduced with the help of the nearby Marromeu nature reserve and South Africa’s Kruger Park.
In 2008 the government and Carr struck a 20-year co-management deal at Gorongosa. By the time it expires he will have invested 40 million US dollars 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 being transported thousands of kilometres overland to new homes.
It is a perilous and expensive exercise, but not nearly as complicated as dealing with the people from communities bordering the park, who have violated its territory for decades.
“To recover the integrity of the park is the most challenging task,” its conservation director Carlos Lopes Pereira told AFP.
“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 (1,570 square miles) to protect it from poaching and the illegal felling of vegetation.
Several park areas were reclassified under a new 10-kilometre (6-mile) 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 them to move away. However, 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 is not sustainable,” says 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 in the country, although five new ecotourism tenders may 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 poach.”
Officials, however, believe in the park’s rebirth and think that through their efforts that 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 may one day see the park in its former glory.”