By Jen Guyton - There are places in Africa where big things run the show. Names like Kruger and Serengeti bring to mind elephants, lions, leopards and herds of hoofed mammals in the millions. Gorongosa was once one of those places, and thanks to the Gorongosa Restoration Project, it’s on its way there again. For now, it’s a different breed of spectacular.
Photo: Sunset (by Jen Guyton)
This is a place of subtle extremes. One day may bring an intense encounter with a herd of elephants, a pride of lions, or one of Lake Urema’s gargantuan crocodiles. The next day, nothing may be obvious until you flip the right stone, splash into the right puddle, peek up the right tree, or patiently wait for a well-timed sundowner. Then, with a good interpreter, that dotted-line track is the trail of an elephant shrew. A twig becomes a chimerical caterpillar. A dank old colonial-era well conceals a congregation of horseshoe bats, some the dusty russet of an equatorial sunset. A deadly vine snake, safely tucked away in a tree, is invisible but for its flickering vermillion tongue, its presence revealed only by a flock of squawking starlings defending their nests. Gorongosa reveals itself slowly, and after 6 weeks here I’m only just beginning to understand the depth of its secrets. This place is pure artistry. It’s a marvel of scale that evokes a simultaneous sense of smallness and bigness, like nothing matters or everything does – like staring at the stars.
Photo: Dice Moth Caterpillar (by Piotr Naskrecki)
Photo: Elephant Shrew (by Jen Guyton)
Photo: Vine Snake (by Piotr Naskrecki)
My own work here, as a PhD student with Princeton University, will be a study of those extremes of scale: the interaction of little pieces of the ecological puzzle with the big. Specifically, I’m here to learn more about the role of hippopotamus in the park’s wetlands – both the way they interact with smaller biota, and the way they create reverberating changes on a landscape scale. Elsewhere in Africa, hippos are known to create channels by shifting lakebed sediment during their nightly forays to and from land. Those channels increase landscape diversity, and might increase aquatic biodiversity by creating new habitat. We’ve noticed those channels in Lake Urema, too. How is Lake Urema’s small hippo population influencing the diversity and distribution of smaller organisms in these wetlands? Might hippos be crucial to the survival of some of the park’s less imposing species, and therefore crucial to the restoration effort? Like most of Gorongosa’s riches, these pearls of information won’t be uncovered easily, but I can’t wait to start the search.
Photo: Channels on the Gorongosa floodplain (by Jen Guyton)
I hope that Gorongosa’s tourists will join its scientists in embracing a sense of exploration and discovery, and take the opportunity to go out and learn with us while we’re doing our research. We’re here not just to do science, but to share in the adventure, and a fresh pair of eyes may be just what we need to crack the next ecological question. Some of my best ideas have come from visitors who have asked me about things that I may never have noticed on my own.
So get out to Gorongosa, explore, and pay attention to the little things. Those who spend their sunsets tucked away at the bar can’t know the dream-like state that falls over the floodplain at dusk, rutting waterbuck saturated in velvet-orange, the light so viscous and tactile that it can’t possibly be real. There is adventure to be had around every corner, if you just know where to look for it. Come with a willingness to refocus your perception – you won’t be disappointed. As W.B. Yeats said,
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”