A generation ago, Mozambique’s 4000-square-kilometer Gorongosa National Park was home to thousands of African buffalo, blue wildebeest and a special subspecies of zebra known as the Crawshayi. The densities of its big animal populations were some of the highest in Africa, earning Gorongosa the nickname “The place where Noah left the Ark”. However, due to illegal hunting in the 80’s and early 90’s, many of its animal populations were reduced by 90% or more. In 2005, the Government of Mozambique teamed with a US conservation organization to begin a long-term recovery effort.
The first priority of Gorongosa’s new management was to restock the park with buffalo and wildebeest, the ecologically important “big grazers”. In early 2006, the first trucks arrived carrying buffalo and blue wildebeest from other parks around the region, particularly Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Kruger National Park, South Africa. Rather than releasing these animals straight into the wild, they were placed in a specially built Wildlife Sanctuary, a large fenced-off area inside the national park. Funded in part by USAID, 30 kilometres of wildlife fencing was erected to create a 6,200-hectare home for the new arrivals. It straddled different habitats to fulfil the different seasonal requirements of the animals.
The animals were relaxed and content in their new Gorongosa “safe zone”. Protected from lions and further illegal hunting, they had lots of offspring and increased their numbers faster than they would “in the wild”. The blue wildebeest more than doubled their population in just a few years, and buffalo have increased 50%. There were some unforseen additional benefits: populations of animals already living in the area of the Sanctuary also increased thanks to the extra protection afforded by the fence. Sable, reedbuck, impala, kudu and oribi all rebounded faster that they would have outside the Sanctuary. Mission accomplished, Park Warden Mateus Mutemba decided that the Sanctuary has done its job. Workers are removing the fence to allow the reintroduced animals to disperse freely around the park.
All this is a bonus for tourists as well. The old Sanctuary area, previously off-limits, will be used for game drives and photo safaris. And thanks to the protection they have received over the past 8 years, there are lot of animals to see and enjoy.
This does not mean an end to the breeding efforts of the restoration project. A new smaller Sanctuary will be developed to focus on boosting the numbers of certain rare species. This will include bulking up the herd of 14 Crawshayi zebra that was received over the last two years from a nearby area in Mozambique. Roan antelope and tsessebe, two species that went extinct in the Park, are also earmarked for reintroduction. Some day in the future, these species too will be released, and the sounds of their hooves will thunder across the famous floodplains of Gorongosa National Park.