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Spring 2011

Gorongosa National Park has recently been the subject of yet another National Geographic feature, due for release early in the new year.  Such was the success of their first documentary - entitled Africa's Lost Eden, (check out  more here) - released in 2010, that the wild folks from Nat Geo were only to happy to come out and film more of Gorongosa's magic.  Led by Bob Poole (film-maker of the first film) and a hugely experienced team of cameramen, sound guys, directors and producers, the team spent just short of a month filming Gorongosa's ever-expanding elephant population.  The team were joined by elephant researcher extraordinaire, Joyce Poole (who just so happens to be Bob's sister), and much time was spent in the company of Gorongosa's not-so-gentle giants.  Instead of giving the plot of the film away - you'll have to wait and see - we thought it would be a good time to spend a few words on Gorongosa's elephants, considering the increase in really cool elephant sightings of late here at Explore Gorongosa.

With around 450 individuals now, the Park's ele population has increased by close on 50% since our arrival here back in 2008.  This is a substantial increase and is consistent with increases in other herbivore numbers.  (Predators have not bounced back in the same way yet, but we are working on this!)  If this growth curve continues we should see a viable population of over a thousand eles within the next 3 or 4 years - this will be a huge achievement when one considers that in the mid-nineties less than 100 survived the 20-odd years of civil conflict in the region. 

There are obviously many consequences of an ongoing increase in large herbivore numbers such as we are seeing with the elephant and hippo populations in the Park.  The obvious consequences are the good ones, ecologically speaking that is: an increase in large herbivores means a decrease in grass height and undergrowth density, as well as a positive effect on the pioneering forest encroachment (such as we are seeing with the fever trees on the floodplain fringes). There are also the obvious advantages of increased tourism potential, a more stable population density, etc etc.  However there are also a number of antagonistic consequences from an increase in elephant population: increased impact on surrounding community fields and crops, increased threat of large-scale poaching syndicates targeting the Park, over-destruction of vegetation, etc etc.  The eternal "elephant debate" is one that rages in every conservation area throughout Africa - How many is too much? How many is enough? How do you maintain this?  How do you deal with human-elephant conflict?  If anyone could come up with the answers to these questions, conservation bodies across the continent would be smiling. 


One thing in the favour of Gorongosa is the relatively low population pf elephants that were recorded here in the Park's heyday in the 60s and early 70s (numbers were steady at a little over 2,000).  This bodes well for the future - perhaps the Park has a naturally low carrying capacity for elephants?  This however was during a time when there were over 14,000 buffalo and thousands upon thousands of wildebeest, zebra and hippo also competing with the elephant for precious natural resources.  There was also less development in the surrounding areas allowing more freedom of movement for these wild beasts.  Each year during the rains a seasonal migration would take place in Gorongosa with the large herbivores moving away from the Urema floodplains and up towards the edges of the Great Rift Valley.  During March and April these animals would slowly start filtering back towards the Urema system and by July, August you would be hard pressed not to find a herd of eles in the palm forests or albida groves of the floodplain fringes.  These days, there is still evidence of this annual mass migration but with less and less room to move in, the elephant herds are obviously coming into more and more contact with neighbouring communities, their fields, their roads and their villages.  This can only have a negative domino-type effect on the conservation story at the Park. 

Human development is an important cog in the turbo-charged engine driving the Gorongosa Restoration Project.  With improvements in anti-poaching and conservation strategies, the numbers of animals in the Park are increasing, attracting more tourists and making the Park a more successful national heritage area.  However, with such increases in animal numbers comes more attraction for poachers, increased impacts on neighbouring communities and croplands, and a creeping belief that animals get more rights and protection than people in this deeply poor and affected region.  And so the wheel of conservation turns.  And for every solution, there are three or four new questions.  At what point will it ever balance out?  Will we see 2,000 elephants back in Gorongosa National Park in our lifetimes?  Will our children or grandchilden even see a wild elephant in the future?  So many questions... 

Thankfully, for the moment, there are some really positive answers coming from Gorongosa.  Let's just hope this unique project inspires others to look carefully at the bigger picture.  I guess it is only when we consider everything from elephant to elephant shrew, from high-end international tourist to neighbouring subsistence farmer, that we will truly be able to provide more positive answers than not to the great mysteries of the African conservation story.

For now though, the spring blooms are out, the bees are a-buzzing, the cheetah are a-hunting on the a-plains (?!?), and all is good in Gorongosa... there is still time to come and enjoy the pre-wet season flush before we close down for the season at the end of November, so if you are keen to join us please just This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .
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