Sue Watt tells the story of Gorongosa, from A-list celeb favourite to war zone to a remarkable regeneration as “ecologically, the most diverse national park in the world.”
In the 1950s and 60s, Gorongosa was the safari destination of choice for Hollywood A-listers like John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Joan Crawford. They would sip their sundowners at the glamourous Chitengo Camp, and spot vast herds of elephants, buffalo, antelopes and over 500 lions on action-packed game drives.
Life seemed blissful here – until civil war broke out after independence in the mid-1970s between the new government’s forces Frelimo and rebel forces Renamo. Gorongosa, Renamo’s stronghold, was at the heart of the fighting. Local people were kidnapped and murdered, buildings destroyed, animals poached for food or ivory. By the end of the war in 1992, the park had become an empty, decimated shell.
In 2004, American billionaire philanthropist Greg Carr flew over Gorongosa, entranced by its ghostly beauty. Looking for a cause, he realised he could help the park recover and simultaneously aid social regeneration in this desperately poor area through tourism. The Gorongosa Restoration Project was born and today it’s one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.
I first came here in 2010, just as Gorongosa was on the cusp of a remarkable recovery. The wildlife was skittish but it was slowly making a comeback. Tourists were coming back too, and so were scientists, including the eminent biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson who in 2011 declared it to be the most diverse park in the world. Perhaps that’s not surprising – the range of habitats, from rainforest, floodplains, fever-tree and palm forests to mountains, waterfalls and gorges all add to its beauty and biodiversity.
So my heart sank in 2013 when I heard that Renamo insurgents were once again threatening the stability of the area in the run-up to general elections, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against travelling to the region. Thankfully, the disturbance was short-lived. In March last year, the advisory was lifted and it was safe to return, so I jumped at the chance to go back.
Gorongosa was as beautiful as ever. The wildlife was far more visible and relaxed, with an abundance of antelopes, particularly waterbucks almost everywhere you turned. But what really gave the place a buzz was the number of scientists here and their excitement about their research. Joyce Pool, the world’s leading authority on elephants, is studying Gorongosa’s herds and their behaviour against the background of war, habituating them to people again. Lion researcher Paola Bouley is doing ground-breaking work on restoring the lion population whose numbers are still relatively low despite their ample food supply. It seems that everything from ants to antelopes is being studied here. And many smaller species have been discovered that are totally new to science, including a new gecko.
It’s estimated that some 35,000-75,000 species potentially exist in Gorongosa and the ambition here is to create a total inventory using the fascinating state-of-the-art Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory which opened last year near Chitengo.
Perhaps the best thing is that people all over the world can participate in Gorongosa’s cool science: in September, WildCam Gorongosa was launched, a global citizen science interactive, using 52 cameras in the Park. Anyone can help by identifying and documenting the animals caught in images from the camera traps. It’s a great chance to be part of a wonderful restoration story in a truly beautiful piece of Africa.