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Where the Rift Valley Ends

The chaotic exuberance of the Gorongosa National Park tends to conceal the scars of history, as well as the uncertainties ahead for Lake Urema and its dependent ecosystem.
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This is the first in a series of posts about the Parque Nacional da Gorongosa and associated Gorongosa Restoration Project.

From its northernmost point in the Middle East, the Great Rift Valley plunges south for nearly 4,000 miles before petering out in Mozambique, the Y-shaped republic on Africa's southeastern coast. If you were to travel those 4,000 miles, the last stop on your journey would be Lake Urema, a shallow depression full of crocs, storks, and, when the floodwaters recede from the grassy plain in the dry season, large herds of grazing mammals.

Lake Urema is the centerpiece of this ecosystem, known since 1960 as Gorongosa National Park. Life in Gorongosa ebbs and flows in concert with Urema, which itself is fed in part by runoff from the nearby Mt. Gorongosa. As I stood on its shores this morning, animals were showing off. Little wading birds with attention-deficit disorder were running around on stilts, frenetically pecking the muck. A kingfisher hovered over the surface before folding his wings and bombing the water, then rising to hover again. A fish eagle soared high, causing commotion among the littler birds below. In the distance, a leopard-spotted serval cat took in the scene from the shade, while a hippo honked and grunted just out of sight.

But all of this chaotic exuberance -- beautiful as it is to watch and smell and listen to -- tends to conceal the scars of history, as well as the uncertainties ahead for Lake Urema and its dependent ecosystem.

Some countries have logged more than their fair share of hard miles, and Mozambique is one of them. Superficially, its history resembles that of too many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa: colonization and underdevelopment by Europeans, a violent struggle for independence, and then a ghastly civil war. During that war (1977-1992), Gorongosa was hotly contested territory. In addition to being the geographic heart of the country, it lay within strategic striking distance of the roads and railways that connected then-hopeful Zimbabwe with the Mozambican port city of Beira. Dominance (you couldn't really call it 'control') of the Gorongosa region oscillated between the RENAMO rebels and the government forces of FRELIMO.

It was, in the words of journalist William Finnegan, a complicated war, and we lack words adequate to describe its horror. The statistics certainly don't do it justice: a million people murdered, millions more displaced, mutilated, and bereaved. Numbers like that are numbing and misleading. We instinctively compare them to numbers from the Holocaust, from Rwanda, from Sudan, Angola, Liberia, Uganda, Congo, Sierra Leone. But there's no kind of relative understanding of human suffering on that scale.

When people have suffered like that, it can seem insensitive, even grotesque, to focus on the plight of wild animals. But with animals, at least, the numbers can give us a better sense of what really happened. In Gorongosa, what had been herbivore populations 4,000-, 6,000-, 13,000-strong dwindled to fifty, twenty, ten individuals. Hardest hit were big grazers like zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo. The elephant population was decimated -- twenty times over. Lions hung on by a claw; around 50 roam the park today, up from just six that were counted after the slaughter. Wild dogs, cheetahs, and hyenas didn't make it, and neither did rhinos (rhinos never do). Maybe someday they'll be back, but they'll probably have to come by truck. Did any leopards survive? Nobody really knows. Leopards are crafty. Someone thinks he might have seen the tail of one disappearing into the bushes recently, but it's hard to be sure.

You could -- and people do -- lay the blame for this butchery on any number of actors: the Portuguese colonials, who blocked access to traditional livelihoods by evicting people from the national park; the South Africans who secretly poached ivory and fed the revenues back into the Mozambican conflict; the soldiers on both sides who shot animals for meat (and, in all likelihood, to displace their own fear and fury); the industrial hunters who flooded the park after the war and laid waste to it; even the rural peasants setting fires and wire snares in one of the world's hungriest countries.

Important as it is to understand the historical origins of tragic situations like these, it seems far more important to do something about it. And a dedicated group of people is indeed trying to do something for Gorongosa -- many things, actually. The Gorongosa Restoration Project (GRP) has its roots in Mozambique's desire to heal this many-dimensional place: to touch up and safeguard its natural beauty, to foster a sense of pride and ownership among the people living in and around it, and to kickstart an engine for regional and national development. The GRP is as multifaceted as the place it seeks to rehabilitate. It is driven by hundreds of Mozambicans from all kinds of backgrounds, and by a charismatic American philanthropist from Idaho. But there are also key roles for geologists, biologists, vets, and anthropologists; for children from the village across the river and tourists from San Francisco; for medical students from Mt. Sinai and tree students from the US Forest Service; for big-time organizations like USAID and IPAD, and for smart individuals with good business sense.

The GRP's ambitious mission is to "protect and restore the natural structure, functions, and processes of Gorongosa National Park and improve the health, education, and standard of living of human communities near the Park." Few things could be more difficult. But very few things could be more important. In future posts, I'll write more about what this inspiring project has achieved to date, as well as some of the critical challenges it faces moving forward.

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