Mozambique’s largest wildlife reserve, the Gorongosa National Park was given a new lease on life in 2004 when American philanthropist Greg Carr launched a restoration project after it was bled dry by a 16-year civil war.
But the park’s path to recovery is being threatened by a new wave of clashes between rebels from Mozambique’s opposition Renamo party and government forces.
Villagers fleeing the unrest are seeking refuge in the Gorongosa reserve which is now home to more than 72,000 animals from 20 different species.
With the fighting, the park has become a real target because the communities can no longer sustain themselves, so they hunt the animals instead
“Before the launch of this project, we were heading towards extinction,” said Gorongosa’s Conservation Director, Pedro Muagara who add that “the numbers are growing”.
But the animal population could soon take a nosedive as the settlers in the unfenced reserve are hunting them for food.
“With the fighting, the park has become a real target because the communities can no longer sustain themselves, so they hunt the animals instead,” Muagara said.
A tour guide at the park Meneses Sousa said: “People are dying. There is hunger, there is disease. All this comes from the ongoing conflict in the country. During the civil war, they destroyed everything, and we rebuilt. This time I do not know if it will be destroyed or not.”
Apart from the encroachment by villagers fleeing the unrest, the El Nino-induced drought across southern Africa is posing another challenge.
Several rivers in the reserve have dried up as a result of the weather phenomenon leaving animals desperate for water to congregate around the few remaining water sources, making them an easy target for poachers.
The Gorongosa park has since 2012 registered some 7,000 visitors but the numbers have currently dropped to to less than 1,000 visitors even though the fighting is confined to the extreme north of the park.
Park employees however remain confident that they will experience better days ahead as the government and Renamo are engaged in peace talks.