GORONGOSA - The elephant cow turns and -- ears flapping, trumpeting -- makes for the car. "The matriarch," whispers safari guide José Montinho. "She’s protecting the herd with the calves."
For a couple of scary minutes everyone in the car sits stock still as the mighty animal snorts and lifts its trunk in a threatening way before turning back around again and trotting off after the others as they enter the forest at sundown.
To the elephants here in Gorongosa National Park, cars mean death. The reflex is still strong 20 years after the end of Mozambique’s civil war. Older animals were traumatized by the slaughter that killed 95% of the park’s elephants, and they pass their fear and aggression down to the younger ones.
Photo: Explore Gorongosa
Gorongosa was founded by the country’s Portuguese colonialists in 1960, and by the 1970s was considered one of the most beautiful wildlife parks in all of southern Africa. Old photographs show zebras and gnus in the savanna, a river full of hippos, herds of buffalo and elephants, large prides of lions. The 20,000 visitors a year lived in modern bungalows in Chitengo Camp, sunned around the pool, and went on game drives in VW buses. Then -- in 1977 -- came the war.
Anti-Communist Renamo rebels hid in the jungle here and set up one of their main headquarters, Casa Banana. The hungry fighters shot wild animals to eat and sold elephant tusks to get money for weapons and munitions. Many animals were also killed by land mines. In 1985, troops of the Socialist government conquered the area – but the killing of wildlife continued. Farmers whose fields had been mined fled into the park and hunted along with the professional poachers.
In 1994, two years after the end of the war, the animals were counted: 65 of 3,000 zebras remained, 108 of 2,200 elephants. The 14,000 buffalo that had roamed the park in 1972 had been completely destroyed as had the 5,500 gnus and 3,000 hippos. The last rhinoceros had died in the 1970s.
"When I came here for the first time in 2004, I hardly saw any animals except for a few warthogs," says Greg Carr at dinner in the rebuilt Chitengo Camp.
Meet the park’s American benefactor, who was born in 1959 in the state of Idaho, the youngest of seven children. Carr wears khakis, a polo shirt and three-day beard, and has $100 million in his bank account, having made his fortune with phone and Internet companies. After he sold his shares in 1998, he founded a museum, a peace park and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Then he found his life’s vocation: the fight against the extinction of animal species.
In New York, Carr met Mozambique’s U.N. ambassador who invited him to visit the country. "I thought: what is Mozambique’s strength?" Carr recalls, "and the answer was: ecotourism." Carr flew over all of the country’s national parks, but when he saw the palm forests, savannas, rivers and lakes of Gorongosa he knew this was the place.
"People told me not to do it," he remembers. "They said: it’s all been destroyed. But the people of Mozambique love this park, and wanted to rebuild it. They just needed the money."
Carr hired some rangers to remove the mines, and get poachers to hand over their weapons. And he began to bring animals back in. In August 2006 the first 54 buffalos arrived from Kruger National Park in South Africa followed by gnus, elephants, hippos and cheetahs.
Photo: Explore Gorongosa
So anybody today who hops into José Montinho’s SUV and rolls out past the gates of Chitengo Camp soon sees warthogs among the acacia and lala palms, Oribi antilopes, grazing waterbucks, a hippo diving in a pond, crocodiles, baboons.
"Those are the most beautiful storks in Africa," whispers Thomas Herzog, handing me his binoculars, as we spot some saddle-bill storks in among tall grasses. The Austrian is a safari pro: he’s here with his wife and another couple with whom he created Build an Ark, a non-profit association that collects donations for animal conservation projects.
"I have visited 200 parks and projects," Herzog says. "No other wildlife park in Africa is as inspiring and as promising for sheer diversity of species. This was the Garden of Eden."
And the landscape still looks like that. The scenery changes every few minutes. The only animals rarely seen in Gorongosa are lions. "Before the civil war the park was known for its lions," says Paola Bouley, a South African biologist. "There used to be 200 lions here, 500 if you added the ones in the surrounding area." During the war they either starved or were shot. "By the time the war ended there were fewer than 10," Bouley says.
Photo: Explore Gorongosa
There are now an estimated 30 to 50 lions in the park, but their number is stagnating -- although animals lions can prey on are on a sharp rise. "We’re checking their health and looking at genetic problems," she explains. "In-breeding could be an issue."
Bouley’s problem is not only serious – it’s urgent. Lions are the stars of the savanna, the real draw for tourists. And they are supposed to bring money and jobs for the 200,000 people who live in villages surrounding the park. In the 15 kilometer buffer zone around park borders they can’t fertilize fields, let their cattle graze, and can only fell certain trees. Because villagers are poor, the temptation to poach is high. That’s why Greg Carr wants to increase tourism: to create jobs.
"We’re planning to open five or six safari camps in the park," he says. Next year two new luxury camps will open, the number of walking tours will increase, and boat tours will be launched. "A national park in Africa must help locals," Carr says. So far he has hired 400 villagers. "Tourism gives the diversity of species a value."
Kids are taught that in the two schools Carr had built, along with two medical facilities and a factory where bananas and pineapples are dried and packed for sale at supermarkets in the capital Maputo. At an education facility in the park’s HQ, children learn about sustainable farming in workshops, and their mothers are taught how to cultivate vegetables that they can sell to the park’s restaurant.
Greg Carr is putting all his entrepreneur's energy and perseverance into Gorongosa National Park and has so far invested $20 million of his own money in it. He plans on investing another $20 million before it self-finances through tourism income. In 2006, there were 1,000 visitors; last year there were 7,000, about half of them from Mozambique.
Gorongosa from up high - Photo: Explore Gorongosa
Carr continues to face major problems: less water in the rivers, ponds the animals drink from drying up as early as May instead of August. And there are still poachers. But he’s not giving up. Gorongosa National Park is his life project, and he hopes others follow his example.
"If we don’t do anything over the next 30 years we could lose as much as a third of all species," he says, adding that Gorongosa is "only one place of thousands where the good fight must be fought."