The women behind the comeback: How one of Africa’s national parks is thriving after war

Jul 3, 2020 | News

By Dan Tham, CNN

In the middle of Mozambique, at the southern end of the Great African Rift Valley, Gorongosa National Park is a haven for wildlife.Crocodiles patrol its rivers, hippos splash in its lakes, antelopes graze on the floodplains and lions stalk the savanna, looking for their next meal. Some of the park’s creatures, such as the Mount Gorongosa pygmy chameleon (only as long as a pinky finger), are not found anywhere else.The 1,500-square-mile (4,000 square-kilometer) park is flourishing now — but it has had a tumultuous history.Gorongosa was first established as a hunting reserve by Mozambique’s Portuguese rulers in 1920. They gradually opened it up to tourists and in 1960, declared it a national park.However in 1977, two years after Mozambique declared independence from Portugal, a bloody civil war erupted and Gorongosa became a battleground. Elephants were poached for their ivory, which was used to buy weapons, and almost all the other large animals were butchered to feed the soldiers.When the war ended in 1992, the landscape was devastated and more than 90% of Gorongosa’s large mammals had been killed.Efforts were made to rehabilitate Gorongosa after the war but it wasn’t until 2004, when American philanthropist Greg Carr partnered with the Mozambican government to restore the park, that it started coming back to life.It was a massive undertaking.

A lion lounges on a tree in Gorongosa National Park.

A lion lounges on a tree in Gorongosa National Park.Brett Kuxhausen/Gorongosa MediaPedro Muagara, Gorongosa’s current warden, says that when he flew over in a helicopter in 2006, he saw “a disaster.” It took two weeks for him to see an elephant and a month passed before he spotted a lion.Since then, millions of trees have been planted, animals — including wild dogs, elephants, hippos, zebra and buffalo — have been translocated into the park, and a team of rangers has been trained to combat poaching.These efforts have paid off. During the last aerial survey, in October 2018, more than 100,000 large herbivores were counted in the park.

Waterbuck -- a type of large antelope -- graze on Gorongosa's floodplains.

Waterbuck — a type of large antelope — graze on Gorongosa’s floodplains.Brett Kuxhausen/Gorongosa MediaBut the work didn’t stop there. As well as restoring the park, Carr and his team have created new opportunities for women in a bid to tackle Mozambique’s entrenched gender inequality.Currently, a third of the park’s 600-strong workforce is female — with a goal to reach 50%.Before Gorongosa closed in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic, CNN visited and spoke to three of the women who are working to rebuild this natural treasure.

The importance of educating women

Under the shade of a tree, in a village just outside the national park, girls are singing, clapping and dancing in unison.They are attending Girls Club, a free education program that operates in 50 villages around Gorongosa.Larissa Sousa, the program manager, says the club offers supplementary lessons to girls from poor families aged 10 to 16.

Larissa Sousa with members of Girls Club -- a free education program.

Larissa Sousa with members of Girls Club — a free education program.Bruce Buttery/CNNMozambique has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with almost half the country’s women becoming brides before the age of 18.Sousa says that Girls Club encourages girls not to drop out of school to get married. Girls who complete high school have better employment prospects and more life choices — which can help to break the cycle of poverty.A key focus is moving the needle on literacy. According to UNESCO, 58% of Mozambique’s women are illiterate (compared to 45% of the adult population as a whole).Sousa points to the trickle-down effect of female education. “If the mother is educated, she will ensure that kids are educated.”

Sousa's mission is to help girls break the cycle of poverty.

Sousa’s mission is to help girls break the cycle of poverty.Brett Kuxhausen/Gorongosa MediaBeyond reading, writing and mathematics, the girls participate in discussions on sexual reproductive health, conservation and the role of women in society.Having fun is also on the curriculum. “Normally, the girls are the ones that take care of the siblings, they are the ones who cook, they’re the ones who need to carry water,” says Sousa. “So we said in the club, you have a time that you just play.”

Bringing back Gorongosa’s elephants

Dominique Goncalves remembers crying the first time she shared her story at a Girls Club.The girls reacted with amazement to photos of her working with elephants. It was “a magical moment,” she says.Goncalves manages the park’s Elephant Ecology Project, which she started in 2018.

Girls Club members listen to Dominique Goncalves  as she recounts her experiences with elephants.

Girls Club members listen to Dominique Goncalves as she recounts her experiences with elephants.Brett Kuxhausen/Gorongosa MediaWith her team, Goncalves monitors Gorongosa’s growing elephant population — which is bouncing back now that poaching has been curtailed.”Once the wildlife starts feeling that they are safe … they start to be less stressed, and they start to reproduce more,” she says.Elephants are a “keystone species” in the Gorongosa ecosystem. By knocking down trees and eating tall grasses, they keep the landscape open and clear, which allows grazing mammals to flourish.Fewer than 200 elephants survived the war, but the population has grown to around 800 since then, says Goncalves, who is pursuing a PhD on interactions between elephants and people at the UK’s University of Kent.

Elephants are a "keystone species" in the Gorongosa ecosystem.

Elephants are a “keystone species” in the Gorongosa ecosystem.Brett Kuxhausen/Gorongosa MediaSometimes elephants stray beyond the park boundaries to raid crops such as maize and bananas — angering local farmers. Goncalves says her team’s top priority is to improve well being for both elephants and the people who live alongside them. Elephants are “intelligent and learn to adapt … so we have to use many different strategies,” she says.The team have put GPS collars on 20 elephants so far. When a tracked elephant heads towards a farm, rangers will try to usher them back to the park by making loud noises with firearms and fire crackers and, on occasion, swooping above in a helicopter. The team also takes advantage of the elephants’ fear of bees by stringing beehives along fences to dissuade them from breaking through.Despite these challenges, Gorongosa’s growing elephant population “gives us a lot of hope,” says Goncalves.

The first female safari guide in Gorongosa

Gabriela Curtiz’s life experiences reflect the revival of Gorongosa and the parallel efforts to empower women.

Gabriela Curtiz was Gorongosa's first female safari guide.

Gabriela Curtiz was Gorongosa’s first female safari guide.Bruce Buttery/CNNCurtiz and her four siblings grew up in a single-parent household in a village 60 miles (96 kilometers) from the park. As a child, during the civil war, she remembers hearing gunfire nearby. As an adult, she became “the first woman ever trained as a safari tourism guide in the history of Gorongosa,” she says, with effusive pride.Curtiz’s mother, a teacher, instilled a love of education in her children. In her last year of high school, Curtiz visited the park for the first time — and that sparked her interest in working there.Curtiz trained as a tour guide and started taking groups of tourists on safari last year.

Gabriela Curtiz's life experiences reflect the revival of Gorongosa and the parallel efforts to empower women.

Gabriela Curtiz’s life experiences reflect the revival of Gorongosa and the parallel efforts to empower women.Brett Kuxhausen/Gorongosa MediaShe says she loves showing visitors around, although she has to deal with disappointment, occasionally, if the lions and elephants don’t show up. “I always remind them it’s not a zoo and this is a national park,” she says.Growing up, she says, girls were often told that only boys could do what they wanted in life. Curtiz has led by example. Now, four of the park’s 13 guides are women.”I want to keep being a role model,” she says, “inspiring other people’s lives, too.”

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