Community Engagement in Africa’s Hottest New National Park

Community-based conservation is the future of wilderness preservation and human survival and community engagement in Africa’s hottest new national park is paving the way forward for sustainable ecotourism. Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique has been engaging with the local people for decades to protect their futures and the region’s biodiversity.  This is biodiversity conservation at its best – empowering communities to sustain the natural resources upon which they depend. It’s how conservation should actually work in Africa, and it will guarantee the success and future of Gorongosa National Park. 

A local community member in Gorongosa standing with their child
As a leader in economic and social development in the region, the Gorongosa Project is committed to empowering local communities and improving quality of life.

Why Community Engagement and Empowerment Has Made Gorongosa a Conservation and Community Success Story

Community engagement and empowerment have made Gorongosa a conservation and community success story thanks to the foundations of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) and science. Scientists have the learned knowledge to guide the work on the ground, but the community carries an innate indigenous knowledge based on centuries of living entwined with nature. Sustainable development initiatives therefore combine these to improve tourism and uplift all families living next to the park. 

The Gorongosa Restoration Project invests time, money and resources into forest rejuvenation, coffee plantations, cashew nut tree plantations, sustainable honey and community development projects. Indigenous knowledge, practical skills, environmental education and science work together to conserve the landscape, wildlife and culture. A success story in one of the national parks in Mozambique.

Mount Gorongosa in Mozambique
Gorongosa National Park is a 4,000 square kilometer park located in Mozambique in Africa. It is one of the most bio diverse places on earth.

Gorongosa has therefore received several awards since 2008 when the GRP started its work there. Its unique partnership with the World Land Trust (WLT) ensured the purchase of a 12,000-ha timber concession outside the park in the buffer zone of Sofala Province where timber will be harvested to generate funds for the communities. A small community-based conservation-managed reserve will also link Gorongosa to the Indian Ocean and become part of the GRP’s ‘Mountains to Mangroves’ landscape corridor. 

President of Gorongosa, Greg Carr, signed a 20-year contract with the Mozambican government in 2004 to revive the park, his passion. He aims to protect all biodiversity, enhance scientific understanding, encourage the creation of nature-centred media, create good jobs for people who live near the Park and invite all visitors to experience authentic safaris. Carr has sworn $40 million over 30 years to restore Gorongosa as a resource for ecotourism to lift the local population out of poverty.  Already, community conservation management is reaping just rewards and biodiversity conservation is proving an enormous success. 

No More Fences and Exclusion for the Local People Around Gorongosa National Park

Gorongosa is a human rights national park, a conservation area that believes in putting people first to manage the land, ensuring the park attains its vision of “a living, life-sustaining ecosystem – bringing health and security to the people and the animals who live here.” Effective sustainable development and successful natural resource management rely on empowering communities that have been sidelined for years. Now, Gorongosa is a living classroom for children and adults who are choosing careers in conservation and biodiversity preservation in a Mozambique National Park. 

A classroom of children from local communities learning about Gorongosa
Education is how we hope to shape the future. At Gorongosa National Park, they teach local people (especially children) the principles and values of environmental conservation so they will be willing and able to help protect the Park in the future.

The GRP has long recognised the rich culture and history of the more than 200 000 humans in the park buffer zone who rely on fishing, farming and raising children in a natural area. An integral part of the landscape, their voices must be heard if the park is to realise its mission of people-managed wildlife and natural resources. Gorongosa is creating jobs in science, ecotourism, law enforcement, and education for community members who are trained accordingly. Appropriate human development will drive the ongoing conservation of biodiversity in a win-win scenario. 

This is the epitome of Community Based Natural Resource Management and, at Gorongosa, local leaders collaborate with the GRP to manage the ecosystems that surround the park. Local communities are involved with decision-making, ensuring sustainable use of natural resources (firewood, fish, and non-timber forest products), managing fires and clearing for agriculture, and including women and youth in participatory decision-making. 

How to Engage an African Community and Create Trust & Belief That Conservation is a Good Thing

Rural Mozambicans living outside Gorongosa National Park witnessed much change since 1920 when the land was first set aside as a private 1 000 square km hunting reserve.  For decades before this, indigenous tribes had lived in harmony with wildlife and natural resources, their lives founded on fables and indigenous knowledge systems and an innate understanding that nature is essential for human survival. There were no such things as fences or exclusion for the local people around Gorongosa National Park way before the park was even a dream. 

An aerial view of Gorongosa wetlands in Mozambique
A beautiful view of the wetlands area of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique

Then the colonial explorers and Portuguese arrived to map Africa’s biodiversity and trade, build houses and start businesses. The naturalists perceived that biodiversity was separate from the indigenous people and that the land should be fenced off and preserved for the wildlife alone. The reserve was expanded to 3200 square km to protect Nyala and the rhino. No rural people were allowed in the park, their original home and traditional hunting grounds. 

In 1960, Gorongosa National Park was proclaimed and enlarged to 5300 square km, an elite safari destination for Hollywood actors to chill and game view. But no local people were allowed inside to chill and game view. Scientists decided that the indigenous fauna and flora should be preserved behind fences, negating ancient rural farming and entrepreneurship methods. Suddenly, the Mozambican civil war hit Gorongosa and lasted from 1976 to 1992, intense political conflict completely disregarding all local people and their land. In fact, the main battlefield was Gorongosa National Park and the entire Gorongosa ecosystem was trashed. Wildlife species were annihilated and about 1 million people died in the mayhem, thousands of them traumatized for years afterwards. More people lost their lives due to war repercussions including injuries, land mines, loss of their livelihoods, poverty and thousands fled as refugees. 

The decision years later to include local people in the management and ownership of the Gorongosa biodiversity riches was truly a historic and humanitarian milestone. Mozambique is 10th in the world’s most vulnerable to disaster countries due to its civil unrest, its droughts and cyclones, and now its terrorism and climate change issues. Food security and economic stability for rural people have taken a huge knock, weakening the entire country in terms of social, economic and environmental stability. The Gorongosa Restoration Project is changing all of this, empowering the Gorongosa municipality and ensuring long-term biodiversity preservation. 

The Fearless Rangers of Gorongosa National Park

Mozambicans living in the buffer zone of Gorongosa National Park are becoming passionate custodians of all life within the park as community-based conservation goals are achieved. Most of the fearless wildlife rangers of Gorongosa are the children who grew up here, the eyes and ears of the park, the custodians of the wildlife and its habitat – and they love their work. These men and women have witnessed the brutality of the civil war, the devastation wreaked by the two cyclones not long ago, and extreme poverty in their own communities. 

The team of 260 Gorongosa wildlife rangers therefore know that one foot in nature and one foot in human development is the way forward. The wildlife rangers patrol the enormous 12000 square km park plus the buffer zones where additional protected areas are planned to link the park to the ocean and also to assist the empowerment of communities who will manage their own conservancies and timber plantations in this region. The rangers use their intensive training in law enforcement and biodiversity conservation to apprehend criminals, stop poaching and conserve all natural resources. They have a strong influence on the community leaders and are supportive of all health and education initiatives within the villages. 

four-woman game rangers of Gorongosa National Park
Much of the work of conservation in Gorongosa depends on and is entrusted to Law Enforcement – a team of 260 trained rangers.

Already, there is a noticeable 60% decline in snares and gin traps set in the park and a marked reduction in ivory smuggling, illegal logging, and pangolin poaching. Also, the local people are more aware of endangered animals and their needs, helping to report incidents to these rangers. Mozambique is the centre of illegal wildlife trafficking and forest logging so Gorongosa works with the Mozambican Protected Areas Authority to apprehend such criminals. 

A Head Warden at Gorongosa Who Earned His Dues

Leading this inspiring team of men and women at the frontline is a man who was recently awarded the prestigious Kenton R. Miller Award for Innovation in National Parks and Protected Area Sustainability, a man who was recognised as a pioneering conservationist for shining a beacon of hope in Mozambique and especially Gorongosa. 

This is the dynamic Pedro Estêvão Muagura, head warden and Director of Conservation at Gorongosa, a born and bred Mozambican who grew up in Manica and decided to study forestry and then wildlife management. The first time Pedro ever saw Gorongosa was in 1990 when he taught students classification and mammal and plant identification there from the Chimoio Institute of Agriculture (I.A.C.) where he was specializing in Forestry. He completed his first bachelor’s degree at the International Faculty of Forest and Timber Technology in Finland, and then his second bachelor’s degree at the College of African Wildlife Management (CAWM) in Tanzania. 

A portrait shot of Pedro Mugura in Mozambique
“For me, what is really special about Gorongosa is the incredible diversity of flora and wildlife including, of course, the beauty of Mount Gorongosa.” – Pedro Muagura

Pedro then joined Gorongosa National Park in 2006 as an instructor to help train workers as part of the reforestation program on Mount Gorongosa. He graduated as a full-time coordinator of the reforestation program of Gorongosa Park and Mountain in 2010 and in 2012, he assumed his present post. What a history about a head warden who deserves his dues. He is passionate about the wildlife, the flora and the people in his team where cooperation is the key word. 

The Kenton R. Miller Award praises people like Pedro who are heroic in their accomplishments to ensure the long-term sustainability of Mozambique’s Gorongosa by maintaining scientific programmes, developing ingenious policies and using good practice.  In particular, Pedro Estêvão Muagura put an end to rainforest reduction in Gorongosa National Park and improved local farmers’ livelihoods after the traumatic impacts of the civil war on biodiversity and communities outside the park. 

How incredible that the successful Community-based Natural Resource Management principles are seeing some 200,000 coffee trees planted every year beside 50,000 rainforest trees. Women have been empowered to become small-scale farmers and their produce is sought after by a natural-products enterprise that processes the coffee at its new factory nearby and markets the roasted beans in Mozambique and around the world. 

View of Mount Gorongosa in the distance, Mozambique
Gorongosa National Park is at the southern end of the Great African Rift Valley in the heart of central Mozambique.

Poaching Has Declined Dramatically with Community Support in Gorongosa National Park Mozambique

Poaching has already decreased by 60% on the Gorongosa boundaries thanks to the dedicated team of 260 wildlife rangers trained in law enforcement. They fight the illegal trade in ivory, pangolins, skins, bushmeat, body parts and more and they are committed to conservation and human rights. It’s hard work to patrol nearly 12 000 square km of habitat including the buffer zone where many villagers live. Ecotourism helps to fund this programme and highlights the benefits for both parks and communities. It is thanks to leaders like Pedro Estêvão Muagura, Gorongosa’s Director of Conservation that communities are inspired to take action to bring poachers to book. Illegal wildlife trafficking is on the rise globally, but Gorongosa National Park rangers are dedicated to halting the decimation of wildlife species in the park. 

African wild dogs and pangolins are iconic species with special habitat needs so saving these species in Gorongosa Mozambique will automatically save their natural habitat and ensure the ongoing conservation of wildlife and landscape in Africa. Community involvement is a necessary part of this inspiring story of the pangolin rehabilitation project and the relocation of African wild dogs to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

A staff member at Gorongosa holding a Pangolin
Each year, Gorongosa rangers rescue multiple pangolins from poachers and/or traffickers operating in Central Mozambique.

Poaching has declined dramatically with community support in Gorongosa National Park Mozambique and the rangers rescued 13 trafficked pangolins in 2019 alone while authorities confiscated nearly 50 tons of pangolin scales. In 2020, they sent another 31 rescued pangolins to the newly created Pangolin Rehabilitation Centre in the Park then guarded them closely upon their release back into the park.

Other reintroduced species like the African wild dogs, buffalos, herds of antelope, cheetahs and leopards are also closely monitored by the rangers who patrol Gorongosa – they remove snares and gin traps, fix broken fences and take on any poachers they may come across illegally in the wilderness areas. Since 2018 when 14 painted wolves were reintroduced into the park after a gap of more than 25 years, scientists recently counted more than an astounding 100 individuals! 

Wildlife rangers guard all animals closely using satellite technology – each individual is tagged and constantly monitored for research and survival reasons. As communities become more aware of Pangolins through education programmes, they reveal more to authorities, helping to reduce the trafficking over the years. Ecotourism helps to fund this programme and highlights the benefits for both parks and communities.

Pack of wild dogs walking down a path in Gorongosa
The African wild dog is one of the world’s most endangered mammals and can be identified by its long legs and irregular fur patterns.

All men and women who join the wildlife rangers’ team endure gruelling training over 60 days to be fit and prepared for the hard work ahead of them. An award-winning National Geographic documentary “On the Front Line – The Rangers of Gorongosa” records the courage, skill and passion of the men and women protecting Mozambique’s beautiful conservation areas. 

Local Heroes and Scientists Now Employed in Their Own Back Yard in Gorongosa

The bottom line for the groundwork on the front line is science, and science is the basis of most global knowledge. According to the Science Council, ’science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.’ 

The Gorongosa Restoration Project uses science to assist them in finding out more about the park’s needs, to be better able to conserve fauna and flora. They use science to actively address threats like poaching and illegal wildlife trade, and people on the ground deal with landscape changes and requirements. Gorongosa National Park has set up an innovative science programme with a ripple effect on local communities aimed at long-term biodiversity conservation and protection.  

Staff employee of Gorongosa National Park chatting
Gorongosa is an exciting place for scientific research. World renowned scientists from across the globe are going to study Gorongosa’s uniquely diverse wildlife, plants, and ecosystems.

The Gorongosa Biodiversity Science Education Program (BioEd) is a central feature of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory at Gorongosa National Park aimed at mentoring Mozambican students, biologists, and conservation leaders in conservation research. They get practical empowering workshops, research fellowships, and higher education opportunities, including entry into the one-of-a-kind Gorongosa Master’s in Conservation Biology Program, the only MSc in conservation biology in Mozambique. 

It’s also the only MSc ever to take place in a national park, on the ground. Students get much more than an academic record when they choose this degree, they get real-life experience including practical research and insights into how the land works hand in hand with people and all life. Gorongosa is globally recognised as Mozambique’s flagship national park and a leading centre for science research and conservation innovation where communities play vital management roles. The ripple effect of more biology experts and conservationists bodes well for Africa and ecotourism in general. Local heroes and scientists are now employed in their own backyard in Gorongosa thanks to these studies and innovative programmes. What’s more, they can bring their cultural indigenous knowledge to the table to teach scientists more in an interactive learning model.

The empowered community of Gorongosa National Park is guaranteeing the success and future of the park as they become the custodians of all biodiversity in an innovative sustainable eco tourism and conservation model. No wonder Gorongosa is the leading game reserve in Mozambique if not Africa. Your 2023 safari awaits!