Rescued From the Ashes of War
War destroyed the 1,500-square-mile (4,000 square-kilometre) wildlife reserve in southeast Africa. Almost all of its animals had been killed to provide bush meat for soldiers and for the hungry people affected by conflict. The park's lodge, once vibrant with tourists, had become rubble.
Today, thanks to some Herculean efforts, Gorongosa is once again a glorious sanctuary for lions, elephants, hippos, antelopes, and hundreds of other species.
The History of Gorongosa
Mozambique was a Portuguese colony when, in 1920, a vast tract of land was set aside as a hunting reserve. It was a place where white people could bag a lion, zebra, or a warthog (okay, perhaps not a warthog) so they could mount their stuffed heads in their trophy room.
After the big game hunters had had the place to themselves, the area was opened up to tourists and turned into a national park in 1960. Then war came to Mozambique.
In 1964, the Mozambique Liberation Front started fighting for independence from the Portuguese colonial government. In 1975, independence came to the country, but shortly afterwards a civil war broke out. The fighting continued until 1992 and one of its side effects was the devastation of Gorongosa.
Elephants were poached for their tusks to raise money for weapons. A similar fate overtook rhinoceroses. The rest of the animals were slaughtered to feed soldiers.
A ceasefire ended the conflict in 1992, by which time 95 percent of the park's large animals had been slaughtered. The species that came close to vanishing were elephant, hippo, buffalo, eland, zebra, sable, waterbuck, wildebeest, and hartebeest. Some animals, such as hyenas and leopards, had disappeared completely.
The government of Mozambique tried to rehabilitate the park, but the country had been ravaged by war and had almost no resources to complete the project. Then Greg Carr appeared on the scene.
The Gorongosa Restoration Project
Born in Iowa in 1959, Greg Carr made a huge fortune as a pioneer in developing voicemail. In 1999, he turned his talents to philanthropy and set up the Gregory C. Carr Foundation. Before long, he got a call from the government of Mozambique. The president, Joaquim Chissano, wanted to know if Carr could help in the rehabilitation of Gorongosa.
He decided to take look. He flew over what had been a richly diverse landscape packed with wildlife and was now almost barren. He told the CBS 60 Minutes program:
“When I first came here in 2004, I could drive around with my Mozambican friends all day long, and if we were lucky maybe we'd see one baboon, or one warthog or something.”
The beauty of the place hooked him, and he set about organizing and funding its recovery. In a 20-year agreement with Mozambique, Carr has invested at least $100 million of his own money. There have been other contributors, such as U.S. Aid, but Carr is by far the biggest.
The first job was the clear the area of snares and traps—20,000 of them. Writing for CNN, Dan Tham reports that “Since then, millions of trees have been planted, animals—including wild dogs, elephants, hippos, zebra, and buffalo— have been translocated into the park, and a team of rangers has been trained to combat poaching.”
The last big aerial survey in 2018 found more than 100,000 large animals roaming the lush grounds of the park. By any measure, the restoration of Gorongosa has been a success, but it's not just the animal population of the region that has benefited from Greg Carr's largess.
Recovery for People
The rebuilding of Gorongosa is helping the local population; deliberately so. About 200,000 people live near the park and almost all of them are very poor. Carr explains their plight:
“People had nothing. I mean, they didn't have clothes. They were wearing rags, or they had made clothes out of tree bark. They were eating insects and trying to catch mice. And, you know, that's when it struck me, well this national park is going to have to help the people.”
The Restoration Project employs more than 600 people, a very healthy percentage of them women in an attempt to deal with Mozambique's entrenched gender bias. Schools have been set up and an emphasis placed on educating girls, so they are not trapped in a patriarchal society.
Mount Gorongosa (6,112 feet or 1,863 metres) looms large over the reserve. The volcanic peak was stripped of its trees during the civil war but it's being brought back to life as a coffee plantation.
Carr's Foundation has given coffee plants to more than 850 farmers and buys the beans from the growers at above market price. All of the profits from Gorongosa Coffee go back into the community, and the project has some ambitious goals. By 2035, it aims to have:
- 20,000 girls earning high school diplomas
- Planted one million rainforest trees
- Created 2,000 full-time jobs
Of course, as the herds of animals have returned, so too have the tourists. They bring with them valuable currency and provide employment for guides and others looking after their needs.
Point and Counterpoint
“My message to anybody with money is, I mean what are you gonna do, stick it all in your casket? I mean, why not enjoy the joy of philanthropy?” – Greg Carr
Minneapolis dentist Walter Palmer is believed to have paid $50,000 to kill a lion in Zimbabwe. The one he bagged in 2015 was a beloved 13-year-old male called Cecil. He only wounded the animal with an arrow and spent 40 hours tracking him before finishing him off.
- The population of lions in Africa was estimated to be half a million in 1950. Today, there are about 20,000 lions in the wild.
- According to the World Wildlife Fund, 20,000 African elephants are killed every year for their tusks. A century ago, there were an estimated one million elephants in Africa; today, the number has shrunk to fewer than 400,000.
- A wide variety of accommodation is available inside the Gorongosa National Park. Prices range from up to $405 a night for a two-bedroom Premium Villa to $12 a night for a campsite.
- “War-Induced Collapse and Asymmetric Recovery of Large-Mammal Populations in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.” Marc E. Stalmans et al, Plos One, March 13, 2019.
- “Greg Carr's Big Gamble.” Stephanie Hanes, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2007.
- “The Women Behind the Comeback: How One of Africa’s National Parks Is Thriving After War.” Dan Tham, CNN, August 10, 2021
- “Restoring Gorongosa National Park After Decades of War.” Scott Pelley, CBS 60 Minutes, December 4, 2022
- Gorongosa Coffee
- Gorongosa National Park
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor