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Hunting for History

July 10, 2013

By Josh Daskin - Last week my mission to understand how Gorongosa’s pans have changed following mammal declines in the park took me to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital city. I was looking for historical aerial images of the park to compare with current photos. The idea is to count and compare the number of pans before and after the war to see if fewer mammals have led to fewer or smaller pans being dug out.


It’s relatively easy to find current high resolution aerial photos using online map services like Google or Bing, but resources from 30 or 40 years ago are few and far between. To date, my best find has been some declassified Air Force and CIA satellite photos from the 1960s and 1970s, but they aren’t high enough resolution to make out the small pans I’m studying.


Photo: 1977 Corona satellite and 2011 Bing maps aerial images of a south-central portion of Gorongosa National Park. The pan in the upper right corner (green in the 2011 image) is about 100m across, one of the largest in the park. The river at the top left is the Msicadzi. 


I started north of town at Eduardo Mondlane University, where I learned that a branch of the national archives existed. It took some wandering and lots of asking directions from smiling students eager to practice their English, but I eventually located the archives in a massive building at the far edge of the busy campus. The warehouse is probably the size of a football field, and is stacked floor to ceiling with 3m high shelves of documents recording the country’s history. Alas, the two technicians working to sort the papers told me I had to go downtown to the national library to find the photographic collection.


The next day I rolled up to the library and explained in my developing Portuguese why I was there and what I was after. The staff was intrigued and ushered me to a back room where they immediately produced a stack of postcards from 1970 and a single photo album from the 1950s. There were photos of buffalo herds and groups of zebra grazing on the floodplain—both tough to sight in the park today.


Unfortunately, the postcards and album were the sum total of the Gorongosa photo collection at the archives—no aerial photos. It’s amazing and sad to know that so few photos from the country’s flagship national park have survived, even in the national archive. Still, I was thrilled to see just a bit of the park’s history preserved here, and the photos revitalized my excitement for Gorongosa’s restoration. I’ve got a few more leads and will hopefully find photos to compare with the modern images I have before long.


Photo: Photos and postcards from Gorongosa National Park found at Mozambique’s national archives in Maputo. The black and white photos are from 1956 and the color postcards from 1970.