Stretching across a floodplain at the south end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, encompassing savannas, woodlands, wetlands, and a wide pan of water called Lake Urema, Gorongosa was once a hunting reserve: Portuguese colonial administrators established it in 1921 for their sporting pleasure by removing the people who once shared the landscape with wildlife. In 1960, when first designated a national park, it harbored about 2,200 elephants, 200 lions, and 14,000 African buffalo, as well as hippos, impalas, zebras, wildebeests, eland, and other iconic African fauna.
But, two years after Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975, the country was engulfed by a civil war. By the time the war ended in 1992, the park was left in tatters.
The park has experienced a remarkably fast recovery. In 2008, the Gorongosa Restoration Project, a Mozambican registered NGO, entered into a 20-year co-management agreement with the Government of Mozambique for the restoration and development of the flagship National Park. The park’s fragile success is due largely to that partnership, which has implemented a new form of conservation in the park. More than 650 elephants now inhabit Gorongosa—a robust increase since the days of the country’s civil war (1977-1992), when most of the park’s elephants were butchered for ivory and meat to buy guns and ammunition. With the population rebounding, Gonçalves wanted a GPS collar on one mature female within each matriarchal group.
The lions of Gorongosa Park suffered one of the biggest losses of any large mammal during Mozambique’s civil conflict, from over 200 in 1977 to single digits at the end of the fighting. Since the restoration project began, lions have begun their steady recovery, and over the past two years, researcher Paola Bouley and her team — the Gorongosa Lion Project — have already identified over 65 lions in just 20 percent of the park. Together with park vet Rui Branco, the team has deployed satellite tracking collars in many of the prides starting in 2013 with the first male “M02,” who was then ruling the Sungue Pride.
Nature is resilient, but its sighs of relief, its trends of recovery and resurgence, require more than reforestation of mountainsides and protections against poaching. A pack of African wild dogs (a native predator, lost during the war) was released into the park in 2018, after weeks of acclimation in a large pen. A small herd of zebras also trotted cautiously from their corral into a trailer and then into the wild. And a solitary leopard was spotted.
This incredible park is making an equally incredible come back and is well deserving if a visit on your next Mozambique safari adventure!
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