Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Back from the brink: rewilding restores wildlife of Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

Sun sets over the Gorongosa National Park Sun sets over the Gorongosa National Park
19 Aug
2020
Left denuded and depleted of wildlife following a decades-long civil war, the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique has reinvigorated its biodiversity through a trophic rewilding programme

Three elephants, two buffalo, seven hippos and a few hundred antelope – that’s all that could be spotted in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique in 1997, when a violent civil war spanning two decades had swept through the nation, imperilling humans and wildlife alike. 

In the early 1960s, Gorongosa was a thriving ecosystem – vast numbers of buffalo, hippo, zebra and wildebeest silhouetted the floodplains around Lake Urema. But bounteous days for biodiversity would turn bloody. From 1964, Mozambique entered a turbulent period as it gained independence from its Portuguese colonial rulers. By 1977, an insurgency against the newly formed government ignited a civil war. Caught in the crossfire, 90 to 99 per cent of all mammals in Gorongosa are estimated to have been eradicated. 

As herbivore numbers dropped, alien plant species began to spread across the floodplains. Mimosa pigra, also known as the giant sensitive tree, which forms dense, impenetrable thickets, grew unchecked

Fortunes changed in 2008 when the government of Mozambique and US-based NGO, the Carr Foundation, entered a public-private partnership with a clear mission: restore the ecosystem to pre-war conditions. Since then, species have gradually been reintroduced through a ‘trophic rewilding’ approach, starting with the herbivore species that were historically present. 

Waterbuck numbers have rebounded since rewilding in Gorongosa National Park began in 2007Waterbuck numbers have rebounded since rewilding in Gorongosa National Park began in 2007

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

‘Trophic rewilding is the effort to re-establish a self-sustaining, self-regulating, biodiverse system by ensuring that populations of large animals are healthy,’ explains Robert Pringle, an associate professor at Princeton University and ecologist at Gorongosa. From 2007 to 2018, the park’s rigorous rewilding approach led to a four-fold increase in large herbivore numbers including waterbuck, reedbuck, impala, oribi and buffalo. 

With the spotlight on herbivore restoration, ecologists knew that the underlying health of the vegetation would be the real indicator of ecosystem robustness. In a new study, Pringle and his team tracked the growth of the invasive mimosa plant to measure the success of trophic rewilding. ‘The premise of trophic rewilding is that restoration of population numbers will allow the ecosystem to heal itself, but the problem is that its success has rarely been tested,’ says Pringle. His team found that from 2015 to 2017, mimosa progressively declined, eventually matching pre-war conditions. What’s more, mimosa was found across 79-96 per cent of herbivore fecal samples: reintroducing herbivores had restored the ecosystem’s ability to self-regulate. 

Some ecologists have raised concern that this kind of rewilding strategy may not be feasible in areas where the altered states of ecosystems – the aftermath of anthropogenic impacts – are irreversible. Yet, in Gorongosa, ten years of rewilding have proved sufficient to counter 35 years of herbivore decline and mimosa growth. ‘Natural processes are taking care of themselves, keeping mimosa under control,’ says Pringle. ‘Establishing robust herbivore numbers has allowed us to start reintroducing carnivores, such as lions and African wild dogs. Fourteen African wild dogs were reintroduced in 2018. Leopards have even returned to the park on their own volition.’

Crucially, rewilding in Gorongosa is uplifting more than just wildlife populations. ‘Sustainable development, women’s education and employment in the communities around the park have all been made possible by the project,’ adds Pringle. ‘If surrounding communities remain poor, there’s little hope for the survival of the national park. 

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

James Wallace, chief executive of Beaver Trust, shares an unlikely…

Wildlife

The winners of the most hotly anticipated photography competition have…

Polar

Artist and geographer Nick Jones was appointed artist in residence…

Oceans

Photojournalist Tommy Trenchard joins a research expedition to the Saya…

Climate

So far, carbon offsets have focused mostly on tree-planting. But…

Oceans

Marine scientists are often too few and too underfunded to…

Wildlife

Indigenous marmosets are under threat from released pets and forest fragmentation

Wildlife

A rare encounter with a leopard in the mountains of…

Oceans

The Saildrone Surveyor, a type of uncrewed autonomous vehicle, has…

Climate

Australia has the highest per-capita use of rooftop solar power…

Wildlife

Ecoacoustics – a way to listen in closely to the…

Wildlife

Ash dieback is set to transform the British landscape. Robert…

Geophoto

Photographer Patrick Wack documents documents changes in the Chinese province 

Climate

A growing tide of legal action is increasing pressure on…

Wildlife

Classifying a group of organisms as a separate species has…

Geophoto

Artist Sarah Gillespie used the historic mezzotint technique for her…

Geophoto

The winners of the 2021 competition of Earth Photo have…

Climate

As climate change dysregulates weather patterns, cases of pest explosions…

Polar

Arctic nations are gearing up to exploit the region’s abundant natural…