Central Mozambique is a place in constant flux: fire and rain, conflict and peace, absence, and abundance. But in the middle of it all sits the unmoving fulcrum of Gorongosa National Park, tirelessly protecting one of the most diverse ecosystems, not only in Africa, but on the planet. I was able to spend a few years documenting and living its story.
I landed in Gorongosa, fresh out of graduate school in 2016 as a biologist-turned-cinematographer and was immediately thrown right into the middle of things. My job was to track and film the nature and conservation stories that would endlessly blossom around the park. It was my first time on the continent, my first time living so far from home, and my first experience filming some of the world’s most dangerous animals in such close proximity.
Gorongosa National Park was proclaimed in 1960. The historical section covers an area of 3,719 km² (371,900 hectares), and the buffer zone around the park increases the total size of the protected area to 9,419 km² (941,900 hectares). The Gorongosa Mountain was proclaimed as a protected area in 2010.
Just as soon as the war for independence ended, civil war erupted in 1977 and continuing for decades before it finally ended in 1992. In the centre of the country, Gorongosa National Park became embroiled in the heart of the conflict. The park’s wildlife became a resource for the fighters: bushmeat filled bellies and ivory lined pockets and paid for weapons. 90% of the regions large mammal species vanished.
The park languished for nearly twelve years until the Gorongosa Restoration Project was formed in a partnership between the Mozambican government and philanthropist Greg Carr – a project intended to breathe life back into the landscape. The goal of restoring the park to its former ecological glory was an ambitious one, but it is one that has seen hard-won progress since the project’s inception.
When I arrived in Gorongosa, the process of recovery had been underway for nearly a decade. My first impression was similar to that of many visitor’s: the park was an antelope Eden. By then, their numbers had returned to pre-war levels. As the most abundant antelope species, waterbuck numbers had reached numbering over 55,000 (more than 10 times as many as during the war) and they dotted the landscape like a southern Serengeti.
Beyond the vast antelope populations, there’s a kaleidoscope of unique life. Rainforests, savannas, grasslands, and even limestone gorges support a cast of characters from the tiny (like the pygmy chameleons found nowhere else on earth) to the gigantic.
I spent days roaming the park in a specialized open Land Cruiser that had been modified for filming. Each day was a treasure hunt – searching for wildlife and showcase fascinating behaviour and chasing the perfect light and composition. One of the more common hazards were the herds of elephants. Being highly intelligent, many individuals carried physical and emotional wounds from the war.
My job entailed more than just filming natural history – it was more about telling the stories of how human and animal lives overlap, documenting the people living and working in and around the park. Stories of scientists, conservationists, veterinarians, rangers, health care workers, and the many communities outside the park.
A hands-on approach to recovery has been guided by the restoration efforts of a team of conservationists and biodiversity scientists. They monitor populations and habitats to strategize ways to build complexity into the web of life while maintaining stability for the park’s ecosystem.
Gorongosa is an entirely different place from the air – a perspective that reveals its true vastness. Watching masses of slithering crocodiles and snorting hippos from an open-door helicopter were some of my favourite moments, as were going on anti-poaching patrols with Alfredo Matavele, the pilot of the park’s Bat Hawk light aircraft.
Tensions between humans and wildlife were particularly high when I arrived, and illegal hunting was commonplace. I spent much of my time with the Carnivore Conservation Team. The above image shows tireless conservationist Paola Bouley in front of the funeral pyre of M02 – one of the park’s lions. Paola is holding the GPS collar that had been used for monitoring the lion’s movements. Like many other lions, M02 was killed by a poacher’s gin-trap – an accidental death caused by indiscriminate poaching.
Rangers are usually locals, tasked with bridging the gap of understanding between their own communities and the wildlife. In the above image, a local leader (far left) presides over a traditional ceremony to bless the translocation of a brown hyena into the park. The hyena had been killing chickens, goats and even dogs on community land, but the community reached out to the park instead of taking drastic action.
To me, the most tangible sign of the park’s success has been the reduction of snaring. Teams sweep an area to find and remove snares, creating safe zones for the larger animals.
Lions were the only large carnivore present during the park’s restoration. Now, with the lion population safe, a pack of 14 African painted wolves (wild dogs) have been reintroduced. Filming their reintroduction was my favorite project, and I spent innumerable hours with them, getting to know their unique characteristics: Beira the stoic alpha female, Minimini the young upstart, Ndarassica the trickster…
My work over the years was focused towards creating long-form documentaries, often specifically for Mozambicans to be broadcast on national television. Even in the buffer-zone, cinema finds a way and small movie-huts play DVDs for an enthralled audience. There is also a community outreach team that organizes public screenings of park media. The look of amazement on these faces makes my job worthwhile. It gives these kids a chance to understand and connect with their home in a way they might not otherwise experience – and gives them something to aspire to.
Not many people get lucky enough to live with iconic wildlife and tell the daily stories of the people doing what it takes for conservation to succeed. It was an experience that was sometimes frustrating, at times funny, and always rewarding. Even better, during my last year in Gorongosa, a litter of 18 painted wolf puppies were born, and I was there to watch them grow up.
Brett is a filmmaker and photographer who documents global wildlife, science, and conservation stories that inform and inspire action. A recovering biologist from the heartland of the United States, Brett embedded for nearly four years in Mozambique’s flagship conservation area, Gorongosa National Park. In his time there he helped create multiple award-winning films that can be seen on PBS, National Geographic, and Mozambique television. His photography of the park has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Associated Press, and Nature scientific journal.