Gorongosa National Park: Where Noah left his ark

Crocodiles on Lake Urema in Gorongosa National Park

Click on the link to see a gallery of photographs from this story.

The cameraman motions furiously at the lake. The philanthropist inches forward. I peer through long grass and see them: crocodiles. Big ones. Looking at us. In the water behind are dark bulges. More crocodiles. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. We follow the cameraman as he creeps closer along a path I now realise was made by crocodiles. The helicopter is nowhere in sight. What the hell are we doing here?

It’s simple. Chris Everson wants close-up shots of crocs for 60 minutes, the American television programme. Greg Carr has come to see some of the wildlife that his money and know-how are helping recover. And I’m caught up in the excitement of what might just be the hottest conservation story in Africa.

Stair-climbing lions and buffalo butcheries

When I’d arrived at Gorongosa National Park a week previously, Vasco Galante, the park’s communications manager, brought out a stack of international magazines and newspaper supplements featuring the park. Richard Estes, eminent author of the Safari Companion, sat down at my table for a drink while Vasco played Derek Watts’s report on Gorongosa for Carte Blanche. The Getaway television crew had left a few days previously; CBS News would arrive on Friday; National Geographic Television was returning to do another documentary the following month. There’s no doubt the rebirth of Gorongosa National Park is news. But is it ready for tourists as well as journalists?

It’s a question that arouses a mixture of melancholy and hope. When it was proclaimed a national park in 1960, Gorongosa was teeming with wildlife. The first scientific studies found 14,000 buffaloes, 5,500 wildebeests, 3,000 zebras and huge herds of eland, sable and hartebeest. The headquarters, Chitengo Safari Camp, had two swimming pools, a bar, restaurant, nightclub, post office and petrol station With over 20,000 visitors a year, it was one of the most popular wildlife destinations in Africa.

I watched a home movie made by a South African tourist who drove to the park in his brand new Mercedes in 1963. It had footage of lions climbing a spiral staircase to the roof of an abandoned building known as the Lion House and scanning the flood plains for game. It showed untroubled elephants and fat antelope everywhere. Pelicans and spoonbilled storks performed fish-catching antics for the camera.

At least the birds survived Mozambique’s civil war, because not much else was left when it ended. By then, up to 95 per cent of the large mammals had been slaughtered for food, ivory or sport, or had died of starvation when their prey disappeared. Even after the war, Gorongosa’s buffalo were supplying most of the butcheries in Beira. When the park’s directors returned, there were three wildebeests left and the few remaining elephants were never seen: they had become nocturnal in order to survive. The staircase at the Lion House was gone and so were the lions.

How voice-mail is saving a wilderness

The new government started rehabilitation work, but it would take something extraordinary to restore Gorongosa. One day, a helicopter flew slowly over the park. In it was American philanthropist Greg Carr and he was blown away by what he saw. Greg had already made two fortunes: the first selling voice-mail to phone companies and another in the Internet boom. Then he packed it all in and started using his money for what he considered its true purpose.

When Greg saw Gorongosa, he knew he’d found the project he was looking for: something that would help both people and the environment. His Carr Foundation signed an agreement with the Mozambican government to spend US$40-million (about R300-million) on the park over 30 years and in June 2008 was awarded a co-management contract. Greg’s plans are as generous as his funding. He wants not only to bring back the wildlife, but to uplift all the communities living around the park.

The truth is you can’t do one without the other. There are no fences and the local people are miserably poor. Small wonder that one of the biggest problems facing Carlos Pereira, director of conservation, is poaching. I’m sitting in Carlos’s tiny office in a converted container. His team caught five poachers on the western boundary this morning (a sixth escaped) and he’s working out how to get them back to Chitengo before they all escape. There’s a diesel shortage, so he might have to use Greg’s helicopter.

Conservation assistant Justino Davane jokes that if the poachers get a ride in the chopper, leather seats and all, it will only encourage them. When enough fuel is found to fetch the poachers by road, Carlos decides to do an aerial survey of the previous day’s controlled burn.

Prescribed fire is another precaution against poachers, who set blazes to make it easier to catch animals. With so few large grazers left, Gorongosa’s grasses can grow to more than twice the height of a man and produce dangerously hot fires, which sweep across the landscape. The fire Justino’s team set yesterday was prodigious, but it was perfectly timed: today it’s raining and the flames are out.

Carlos is happy with the work. The burn wasn’t too hot, so trees and shrubs are unscathed. Most importantly, the sanctuary, a fenced area where wildebeest and buffalo from Kruger Park and southern Mozambique are waiting to be reintroduced, is now protected by a firebreak.

The origin of everything

More worrying than fire or poaching is the state of Mount Gorongosa, the sacred mountain just outside the park. Gorongosa means ‘place of danger’ and the mountain is indeed in peril. Uncontrolled slash and burn agriculture means that within only five years, the mountain’s rainforests could be razed, causing the perennial rivers flowing from its heights to silt up and become nothing but useless, polluted trickles.

This has serious implications for the park’s ecosystem, which owes its incredible diversity to a lake fed by these rivers. Lake Urema sits at the centre of the park like a giant aquatic lung. In the wet season it expands, covering as much as 200 square kilometres under two metres of water. In the dry season it can shrink to less than 10 square kilometres, exposing vast flood plains as feeding grounds for all kinds of birds and animals.

It’s not yet too late to save the mountain and, with luck, it may one day be formally protected. Until then the Carr Foundation and its partners are teaching the people alternative farming practices and have started nurseries to replant the forest. Their great hope, however, is to boost the region’s economy by attracting tourists – and plenty of them.

Gorongosa will not be pursuing the type of high-value, low-volume tourism that automatically excludes anyone without an elephant-sized wallet. ‘We believe that all the citizens of the world have a right to enjoy this beauty,’ says Alberto Vaquina, governor of Sofala Province.  Facilities are being rebuilt to cater for all types of visitors, ordinary Mozambicans included. Already Chitengo Camp has new chalets, a new restaurant and swimming pool and a refurbished campsite. It will eventually provide accommodation for 100 guests. Two more low-impact camps are planned and over 100 kilometres of game drive roads have been opened.

I hop into a converted Land Cruiser with head guide Jonathan Retzlaff and Tonga Torcida, a local lad who spends his school holidays in the park training as a guide. I prepare to sit back and simply enjoy the scenery, but animals keep popping out from between the ilala palms and fever trees. Warthogs rootle, a sable stares, bushbuck bound, baboons yell ‘baahoo!’  ‘Stop, stop!’ whispers Tonga. In the undergrowth beside us is a civet.

We reach the flood plains where a multitude of moving specks spread into the distance: impalas, nyalas, oribis, reedbuck, warthogs and waterbuck. The surrounding fringes of acacia albida are white with marabou and yellow-billed storks. Crowned cranes strut and fish eagles preen. From the balcony of a bombed-out cocktail bar, I see hippos snorting and cavorting in the lake and, motionless on its banks, rank upon rank of Nile crocodiles.

There is much still missing. ‘The park is out of balance,’ says Jonathan. ‘There are too many small animals and not enough big grazers and predators.’ Carlos can’t release the new buffaloes and wildebeests until poaching is under control. There are no hyenas (the lions are going to get the shock of their lives when hyenas are reintroduced), no cheetahs and ‘there might be a leopard’. The elephants haven’t yet lost their reticence and the Selous zebras, instead of recovering, have dwindled to just six individuals.

Somehow that makes it more exciting: to be here now, at the park’s new beginning, when its potential can so plainly be seen – as wide and shining as the waters of Lake Urema, where we’re standing stock-still, staring into the open jaws of close-up crocodiles.

Chris the cameraman stirs. The crocodiles whip around and slither into the water. Tentatively, we step out onto the shore. The air is redolent of tropical rain, mud, dung, guano, crushed grass, danger and exuberance – the peculiar odour of wild Africa. For a long time, nobody says anything. I want to freeze this moment in my memory, but Gorongosa doesn’t stand still. White pelicans wheel against blue clouds. Crocodiles erupt in silver spray to snatch leaping tiger fish. Gorongosa is on the move.

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