Perhaps it was the memory of being the first tourist to re-visit the park back in 2005 that was the tipping point. Or my sentimental and faded reflection of my first visit with my father and mother back in the seventies when I was just a boy. But whatever it was I was gripped to drive east, not north, when we left Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe. East to Gorongosa National Park. I needed to rekindle those memories and fire up that shouldering flame in my heart called Gorongosa.
Gorongosa has a certain special place in the tree of African parks. It’s speciality is its history of hope and tragedy that marks its entire life trajectory. From its creation in the early sixties the park has walked a thin blue line between war and peace, species destruction and rehabilitation.
During the Mozambique civil war Renamo forces occupied the Gorongosa mountain alongside the park and made the park their private hunting ground killing off almost the entire animal population. They have been in the Gorongosa region ever since as a bleeding sore in the side of the people. Just in August this year the leaders of Renamo and the Frelimo met to sign yet another peace agreement amongst much fanfare and ceremony at Chitenza, the headquarters of the park. A few months later the killing started again.
This is the social and environmental world that American dot com billionaire turned philanthropist Greg Carr stepped into. As the story goes, after a chance meeting with the Mozambican Ambassodor to UN, Greg flew to Mozambique to see what he could do to help the countries people and parks. From the dizzy heights of a helicopter he flew the length and breadth of the country. Seeing the magnificent Gorongosa from the air was a game changer. He immediately announced that he had found the park to help and went back to Maputo to negotiate a management agreement to bring back the park to its former glory and restore it as a symbol of pride in the crown jewels of the Mozambique people.
And so started the journey of restoration. Situated in the heart of a war zone meant any rehabilitation was never going to be easy. To his credit Carr and his management team took the strategic view that human rights and socio-economic development of the people inside and outside the park, must water the roots of the conservation effort. These are not just words. They are practical actions for the Gorongosa leadership team. They translate into having established over fifty young girl groups meeting daily to drive a stay at school process instead of being married off as teenagers for labola, the development of an ecological science unit to count ands record the species in the park (currently recorded six thousand species of a potential seventy five thousand in the park) in conjunction with an alliance of Mozambique universities and leading universities in the world , anti poaching and community collaboration initiatives on the ground, creating coffee plantations with local villagers to encourage reforestation of Gorongosa mountain (because coffee grows under forest canopies) and a coffee processing plant.
This is some of the stuff. But it is also includes ongoing initiatives to engage the political leadership of Renamo and Frelimo locally and nationally to promote peace in the region, an essential ingredient for sustainable development of both the people and the park. It’s this people centred vision of the conservation and rehabilitation effort, together with the draw dropping beauty of the four distinct biomes in the park, which makes Gorongosa such a flagship park for Africa. Do yourself a favour: go there.