Cahora & Tete

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Rare orioles and shy elephants

Rare orioles and shy elephants

Decades of persecution during Mozambique’s civil war have left Gorongosa’s elephant population ravaged and nervous of  humans.
Decades of persecution during Mozambique’s civil war have left Gorongosa’s elephant population ravaged and nervous of humans.
Christopher Scott



Regular contributor Chris Scott sent this report from Gorongosa, a famous park now in recovery in Mozambique.

The herd of elephants halted suddenly as they emerged from the thick raffia palm grove, their trunks immediately up in the air for a taste of what had alerted them. We sat motionless in the vehicle on the road 50m away, thrilled with the scene in front of us. Our stalemate only lasted a few more uneasy moments before the herd bunched up and crossed in front of us, trumpeting their disdain into the distance.

Back at Gorongosa’s main camp Chitengo, the guides told us we were privileged to have had such an interaction with Gorongosa elephants, which have a deep mistrust of anything human, borne of a long spell of persecution at the hands of poachers and militia. Only now are the elephants starting to settle down in their new haven and treat humans with less fear and aggression.

Gorongosa has both a colourful and distressing history. The park was a favoured hunting ground for the colonial elite in the 1920s. The first step towards preserving the area was initiated by the Mozambique Company, which was chartered by the then colonial government to manage central Mozambique. One thousand square kilometres were set aside as a hunting reserve by the company and formed the basis of what is now Chitengo and Gorongosa National Park.

Visiting dignitaries made the reserve a popular destination and a new administration block was built, the derelict remains of which are fondly referred to as the ‘lion house’ due to the resident pride’s predilection towards literally hanging out in and on the building.

After the Mozambique Company’s charter came to an end in the early 1940s, the reserve’s management was handed over to the colonial government. The first warden of the park, Alfredo Rodriques, set about banning hunting and built the restaurant and administration at the main camp of Chitengo.

The colonial government expanded the park by another 2,100km2 and declared it a National Park in 1960. This had a staggering effect on the ecology of the area and the earliest census held in the late 1960s revealed that the park hosted 200 lion, 2,200 elephant, 14,000 buffalo, 5,500 wildebeest, 3,000 zebra, 3,500 waterbuck, 2,000 impala, 3,500 hippo, and herds of eland, sable and hartebeest numbering more than five hundred.

Conservation and tourism came to and end with the onset of the Mozambique civil war. The park was abandoned from 1983 and for nine long years the park, its animals and the surrounding local population suffered the brutal atrocities of war. By 1992, most of the animal populations had been reduced to within ten percent of their original numbers.

Various development forums provided the necessary resources to start the rebuilding of the park. In 2004 the Carr Foundation, led by millionaire philanthropist Gregory Carr, gave the park the vital boost it needed. US$10 million was invested by the Foundation over three years and the Government and the Foundation signed a 20 year co-management plan.

Gorongosa is a vessel of biological diversity with some species of plants and animals endemic to the area. Mount Gorongosa is a huge brooding massif that juts 1862m from the savanna floor, influences the weather patterns of the area and hosts pristine brachystegia and temperate forests.

Mount Gorongosa is one of the main focal points of the restoration project. Areas of the mountain that were previously considered sacred by the locals have been overrun and more than 2,000 people live on the slopes of the mountain, contributing to the slow degradation of the unique natural environment.

Castro Kaskata, our National Parks guide, explains how the community is slowly being educated about the importance of the mountain and how participants from the community have set up 35 tree nurseries around the slopes of the mountain.

As we slowly made our way up the side of the mountain, with the dark shimmer of indigenous forests beckoning us from a distance, we had to negotiate our way through maize and banana plantations, testament to the triumph of small scale agriculture over biological diversity.

The sheer beauty and coolness of the forest was overwhelming at first, and then the faint burbling of our quarry echoed tantalizingly. Castro expertly cupped his hand and with practised vocal dexterity returned the liquid notes. Even in the dull forest light the bright green head and luminous yellow body of a green headed oriole was easily recognizable.

This oriole can only be found on the slopes of Mt Gorongosa. The area’s diverse geography plays host to a staggering 400 species of birds, some rare and shy like the Narina Trogon and some under threat like the scores of crowned cranes that flock to the Park’s seasonal wetlands, making Gorongosa one of the must-visit areas of southern Africa for any keen birder.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Cahora Bassa & Tete

Scotty Photography