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African Elephant, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

African Elephant, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique


In 2018 I traveled to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique to attend a macrophotography workshop called “Bugshot,” in which we looked for and photographed insects and spiders and whatever other tiny creatures we could find.

Now, I realize most people go on safari to Africa to see the “big five” (elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, cape buffalo), but we were there to photograph the small stuff – beetles, katydids, spiders, dragonflies, maybe a few frogs. That said, I enjoyed seeing warthogs, monkeys, baboons, many species of antelope, huge numbers of birds, hippos, and crocodiles.

The elephants, especially, made an impact on me. It may be trite to say, but seeing a wild elephant is an utterly different experience from seeing one in captivity.

Beyond the amazing wildlife encounters, the fellow workshop attendees and instructors were, as always, a fantastic, interesting group of people, including both scientists and layman “enthusiast” bug nerds like me. It was a pleasure to hang out with smart, like-minded people of various ages and backgrounds and levels of photographic experience, from whom I learned a lot, and with whom I drank more than a few beers.

Gorongosa was one of Africa’s most famous wilderness parks for many decades, in the early days as a hunting reserve but from 1960 onward as a safari destination, rivaling the great parks in Kenya and South Africa.

But in 1977, Mozambique was plunged into a civil war, a brutal conflict that lasted until 1992. A lot of people died – a million or more. One of our guides told us stories about running from his village as a child to hide in the bush, over and over again, because despite the risk of lion attack it was still safer than when soldiers or rebels came through, killing people they thought were on one side or the other. One could say that he lost friends and family, but I hate that expression, because “lost” is a passive word, implying a simple lack of presence, a moment of inattentiveness, like misplacing your eyeglasses, when what really happened is that his friends and family were murdered.

And as always, there were impacts beyond the terrible human costs of the war. By the time the fighting ended, Gorongosa was essentially empty of wildlife. Ninety-five percent of the large animals in the park were killed during or just after the conflict, mostly for meat or, in the case of elephants, for their ivory. Predators were shot for sport or starved due to lack of prey. Whole species were extirpated. The few creatures that remained were reduced to small, straggling groups – for instance, as few as six lions survived, a relic of a once healthy population. The situation, ecologically, was bleak.

But with the help of American philanthropist Greg Carr, the park is coming back. Mr. Carr partnered with the government of Mozambique to restore Gorongosa; they brought in scientists, they worked with local people to reduce poaching, they reintroduced animal species that were wiped out during the war, they started a shade-grown coffee enterprise so local people can profit from intact forests instead of resorting to destructive, short-term-gain, slash-and-burn farming.

It is an ongoing process, with plenty of problems to solve… but it is succeeding. Animal populations are rebounding, both prey and predator. While we were there, in fact, we got to see a pack of African wild dogs which were being readied for release, restoring a species that had been killed off.

One of the instructors for our workshop, Piotr Naskrecki, as associate director of the E.O. Wilson lab in Gorongosa, has overseen the building of a modern research facility in this wilderness setting. Scientists and grad students from all over the world are there, studying, well… everything. In addition to their own research, they are conducting a biological survey of the park with the goal of cataloguing literally every living thing there – birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, plants, lichens, arthropods, fungi. And it’s not just outsiders coming in to study in the park – there is now a master’s degree program specifically for local students, to train them to become biologists. It is, simply, inspiring.

We live in a time when good news about the natural world is hard to come by. So-called leaders in our government devalue science and openly mock it, greedy politicians and industry shills do their best to discredit expertise and marginalize knowledge. But while challenges remain in Mozambique, I can tell you: Gorongosa is good news.

It’s also hard work. People who think we should just leave Nature alone and it will heal itself, that our absence, our lack of interference, is all that’s required for balance to be restored, are naïve. You can’t reboot Eden, turn it off and turn it back on again. When we truly fuck up an ecosystem – whether by war or unregulated mining or deforestation or overfishing or electing rapacious assholes as leaders of nations – Nature may not recover, certainly not without help.

Which brings me back to Gorongosa’s elephants. Elephants live a long time – sixty, seventy years. That means some elephants in the park, especially the matriarchs – the older females who are the center of elephant family groups – were alive during the war. They remember it. Some of them actually have bullet holes in their ears. So they don’t like human beings. Because they remember that we murdered their friends and family.

So since we caused that trauma, that PTSD, if we want to see elephants in the park without danger to us or stress to them, we have an obligation to try to help them. Ecotourism can be part of that help. Over time, it may show the elephants that despite what happened in the past, humans now are at worst odd creatures who drive up in safari trucks, stare and point, click cameras incessantly, then drive away again.

I don’t know if the elephants will ever get over the trauma they suffered, but in time maybe they will learn that we’re not all bad. And maybe they’ll teach that to their offspring. Maybe we can give them, if not peace, at least some measure of reassurance that things will be better from now on.

Can an elephant have hope? Who am I to say? I know that their ongoing recovery, in this special place, gives hope to me.

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