Kicking things off for the 2023 series on rewilding, Oliver Tufft tells the epic story of Gorongosa National Park.

Before the Mozambican War of Independence (1964 – 1974) and the following Civil War (1977 – 1992), Gorongosa National Park, in the Great Rift Valley of central Mozambique, was host to a level of biodiversity that rivalled the Serengeti. Marketed as ‘where Noah left his Ark’, the region was first protected in the 1920s when big game hunters realised that their trophies would run out unless their habitats were in some way looked after. Before the 30 years of bloodshed, Gorongosa boasted roughly 200 lions, 2,200 elephants and 14,000 cape buffaloes.

Even after the War of Independence, as Mozambique claimed independence and a Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique or Liberation Front of Mozambique) government assumed power, Gorongosa’s ecosystem remained largely intact. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last for much longer. In the aftermath of debilitating colonial rule under the Portuguese, Frelimo’s leader Samora Machel wanted to create Africa’s first Marxist-Leninist state. He didn’t recognise different tribes, religions or communities, only “Mozambicans who are equally exploited and equally desirous of freedom and revolution”.

Neighbouring South Africa and Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) were then still under colonial rule and feared communism spreading across the border and becoming revolution. To combat this perceived fear they created Renamo (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana or Mozambican National Resistance). On paper, Renamo was an indigenous anti-communist army. In reality, Renamo was a well-armed foreign military force with the sole intention of overthrowing Frelimo and showing Mozambicans that they, and so communism, couldn’t protect them. The 15-year civil war was a holocaust. Roughly one million Mozambicans died and several million more were forced into exile.

Gorongosa was located unfortunately close to a Renamo headquarters and so was a constant battleground. The Renamo soldiers lived off the land and hunted wildlife for food. Even after the war had ended, poachers and hunters decimated what was left of any wildlife that survived the conflict. There remained roughly 20 lions, 100 elephants and 15 cape buffaloes, not to mention the hyenas, black and white rhinos and wild dogs that all became locally extinct.

In 1994, the African Development Bank, European Union and International Union for the Conservation of Nature provided funds for a five-year rehabilitation programme. When it ended in 1999, some species, such as antelope and waterbuck, were on the rise. While the programme did create tighter boundaries and introduce rangers, the return of the herbivores had less to do with the programme itself and more to do with the nature of the declines in the first place.

During the conflict, large mammals were killed in vast numbers for meat. Therefore, species were being removed from the top of the food chain. Soldiers lived off the land, though, thanks to Gorongosa’s vast size, large tracts of suitable habitat remained. When soldiers left conditions were right for herbivores to return, reflecting nature’s ability to bounce back when given space to do so. Elephants, being the clever animals they are, took a little longer to return as they made absolutely sure the coast was clear.

Despite the return of many large animals, because of a variety of factors, including abundance, territorial behaviour and an element of luck, some species would simply not return without targeted human-led intervention. Fortuitously, philanthropist Greg Carr had been sympathetic to Mozambique’s cause for many years and in 2005 committed $40,000,000 over 30 years. In the same year, a wildlife sanctuary was built within Gorongosa to allow introduced animals time to acclimatise before being let into the park.

A success story: “By 2018, the total biomass of the park had reached 95% of pre-war levels.”

Reintroductions began in 2006 with 54 buffaloes arriving from Kruger National Park. The immediate impact of their presence highlights the importance of active trophic rewilding for conservation. By grazing coarse grasses, they opened things up for other grazing and browsing species that were previously impeded. In 2007, 180 wildebeest joined the party. In 2018, wild dogs were brought back and in 2020 the park welcomed its first leopard in years. It is hoped that in the near future hyenas will also be reintroduced to restore the predator-prey dynamics of the park even further.

All told, Gorongosa is on the mend. By 2018, the total biomass of the park had reached 95% of pre-war levels and by 2020, 500 elephants and 150 lions were recorded – all of which returned of their own volition. The reintroductions were such a success that of the 100,000 large animals in Gorongosa, 2,100 have been sent to other parks for reintroduction. Amazing considering that only 451 herbivores were ever reintroduced to Gorongosa.

Gorongosa, perhaps Africa’s greatest conservation story, teaches us a lot about rewilding and the role that humans have to play. For one, because large parts of the park’s flora remained intact, the level of intervention required from us was greatly reduced. We needed to reintroduce certain species and manage human-wildlife conflicts.

Compare this to the extinctions that are happening elsewhere due to the degradation of flora. The thoughtless use of pesticides and intensive agriculture ruins soil and plant ecosystems, the effect of which ricochets up the food chain. Reintroducing herbivores to the Shropshire hills wouldn’t create the booming population that was seen in Gorongosa because there simply isn’t the habitat for them to survive. To reiterate a core tenet of rewilding: nature knows what she’s doing, we just need to give her the tools and the space to do so.

Another lesson to be learned from Gorongosa is that we, as humans, are intimately related to the successes or failures of rewilding efforts. Human-wildlife conflicts are a fact and how they are addressed is crucial. In Rwanda, for example, conversation efforts were hampered because displaced Rwandans simply needed somewhere to live and land to grow food.

However, solutions do exist. Thankfully, and largely down to Greg Carr’s mission being conservation and human development, conflicts were kept to a minimum in Gorongosa. In any case, it’s important to realise that humans are a part of nature. The sooner we come to value nature, the sooner nature will value us.

Reading Recommendations

If you’d like to learn more about Gorongosa, I highly recommend reading How Rewilding is Transforming Conservation and Changing the World by Millie Kerr and A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk Through Gorongosa National Park by Edward O. Wilson.