A Comeback for African National Parks


Patrick Adams, The New York Times

Date Published

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The earth’s sixth mass extinction, scientists warn, is now well underway.

Worldwide, wildlife populations are plummeting at astonishing rates, and the trend is perhaps most starkly evident in Africa’s protected areas — the parks, game reserves and sanctuaries home to many of the world’s most charismatic species.

Between 1970 and 2005, national parks in Africa saw an average decline of 59 percent in the populations of dozens of large mammals, among them lions, zebras, elephants and giraffes. In at least a dozen parks, the losses exceeded 85 percent.

One of those was Gorongosa National Park, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island, in central Mozambique.

Once a premier safari destination, Gorongosa suffered through a brutal 16-year civil war. When the fighting finally ended in 1992, the park was a shambles: More than 95 percent of its large mammals had been wiped out — slaughtered for food and the purchase of arms. Abandoned for another decade, it might well have gone the way of so many other protected areas: downgraded and downsized, converted to cropland or opened to mining.

But now the numbers tell a different story, and it’s one with lessons for the world.

In Gorongosa, African wildlife is making a comeback. On a visit last fall, I saw vast herds of antelope, lion prides lazing in the shade, pods of hippos, a pangolin, a fish eagle weighed down with a fresh catch and families of elephants lumbering through a forest of fever trees. And much more.

In October, researchers in the park counted more than 100,000 large mammals, an increase of more than 700 percent over figures from a decade ago. And with that resurgence, Gorongosa has emerged as a rare success story — a case study in nature’s renewal and proof that with adequate funding and committed leadership, conservation is possible in even the poorest corners of the world.

To be sure, Gorongosa is a special case. Since 2004, Gregory Carr, an American philanthropist, has spent tens of millions of dollars on the park and in the buffer zone that surrounds it, some 1,300 square miles that are home to an estimated 200,000 people.

Few protected areas in Africa enjoy anything close to that kind of support. Reliant on paltry tax revenues in countries with pressing social needs, most struggle to cover their basic operating costs. And while African countries have some of the world’s largest tracts of land under protection, many have languished for lack of funding.

According to research by Peter Lindsey and colleagues in the Wildlife Conservation Network, roughly 90 percent of protected areas within lion range face severe budget shortfalls. Some, known as “paper parks,” serve as little more than lines on a map.

“The assumption has long been that African wildlife will ‘pay its own way,’ primarily through activities like photo-tourism and trophy hunting,” Craig Packer, a veteran lion researcher at the University of Minnesota, said. “Well, I can tell you, the data are in, and that isn’t happening.”

For decades, Dr. Packer ran the Serengeti Lion Project in Tanzania and lobbied for greater oversight of the country’s hunting industry. His tenure ended in 2014 when Tanzanian wildlife officials barred him from the country, citing derogatory statements he made about the industry in an email. Months later, the killing of a beloved lion named Cecil by an American tourist in Zimbabwe set off a firestorm over the ethics of big-game hunting. 

But while the debate that ensued attracted global attention, it failed to address a fundamental challenge: If African wildlife can’t pay its own way, who will?

The answer, increasingly, is what’s known as “collaborative management.” More and more, African wildlife authorities are partnering with nonprofit organizations to secure ecologically valuable landscapes. 

And as these public-private ventures have in recent years proliferated across the continent, they’ve channeled philanthropic capital to conservation efforts on an extraordinary scale.

The use of philanthropy to support conservation is hardly a new phenomenon; many of America’s most iconic protected areas owe their existence, in part or in whole, to gifts of land and money. 

But while governance and operations have long been the exclusive domain of the state, new collaborative management models take a hybrid approach, using private resources and technical expertise to protect and expand lands held by the government while restoring native habitat and rebuilding populations of wildlife.

One prominent example of such a philanthropy is the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit that raises private funds to stitch together more than three million acres of existing public lands across Montana’s northern Great Plains.

There’s also Tompkins Conservation, a group founded by the American philanthropist Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and her husband, Douglas, to create national parks and restore ecosystems in Chile and Argentina. 

The group’s donation of more than a million acres of restored conservation land to the government of Chile prompted the creation last year of five new national parks and the expansion of three others.

Nowhere are the stakes higher, though, than in Africa, home to the world’s largest intact ecosystems, close to a quarter of global biodiversity and some of the planet’s highest rates of human population growth.

“People all over the world enjoy African wildlife, but for those who live next to these animals, it’s a daily challenge,” I was told by Mujon Baghai, an independent researcher and the leading author of a recent study of protected areas in Africa. 

“Their crops get raided, their livestock may get eaten, and they forgo opportunities to use the land in other ways,” she said. “The international community has a responsibility to help preserve these wild places and to do in ways that ensure local communities benefit.”

In the study, Ms. Baghai and her colleagues examined the strengths and weaknesses of various partnership models. “By far the most successful are those that are long-term,” she said. “Projects like Gorongosa in Mozambique and, on a much larger scale, African Parks.”

The latter, an international nonprofit founded in 2000, may be best known for resurrecting Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve, or more recently, Zakouma National Park in Chad. 

Today the organization has a portfolio of 15 parks and protected areas in nine African countries, with a budget of $72.5 million for the current year, management contracts of 20 years or more on average and a new president in Britain’s Prince Harry.

Both organizations claim to take an inclusive approach to conservation. They say they recognize the key role of local and indigenous people in protecting biodiversity, solicit their input in managerial decisions and couple conservation activities with projects designed to benefit surrounding communities.

To the architects of the Gorongosa Project, which was established in 2008, the animating objective has been to transform the park into “an engine of human and economic development” — a goal that traces its origins to the early 1990s, when Mozambique’s president at the time, Joaquim Chissano, began planning for a recovery when the civil war ended.

Like his friend and contemporary Nelson Mandela, Mr. Chissano was an early champion of so-called peace parks — transfrontierconservation areas designed to encourage cooperation and prevent conflict between neighboring states. 

He believed that Gorongosa could play a similar role within Mozambique itself: that by generating jobs and rural development, a revitalized national park could help heal the wounds of war.

Of course, an impoverished Mozambique couldn’t do it alone, so Mr. Chissano went about courting partners. When he met Mr. Carr, through the Mozambican ambassador to the United Nations, the tech mogul-turned-philanthropist had recently made some large donations to projects promoting human rights, including $18 million to establish the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. 

At the time, though, Mr. Carr was casting about for a new project to throw himself into. When he arrived in Gorongosa, he knew he’d found it.

In 2008, he committed $20 million to the park’s restoration as part of a 20-year co-management agreement with the Mozambican government. Since then, he has added some $40 million more, and the government has extended that agreement by another 25 years. With the return of wildlife — including, most recently, packs of endangered painted wolves — plaudits have poured in from across the conservation community.

Mateus Mutemba, formerly the warden of Gorongosa and now general director of Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas, credits much of that success to strengthened security measures and science-driven management. 

But he said any gains would be only temporary without investments made beyond the park’s borders. “It’s this idea that ecosystem health and human health are two sides of the same coin,” Mr. Mutemba said. “In the long run, that’s the only way this works.”

“We all know the origin story of national parks in Africa,” Mr. Carr told me one afternoon during a game drive through the park, where he spends roughly half of every year. 

“They were created by colonial regimes and they were essentially fortresses: open to white, Western tourists but closed to the people whose natural heritage they were meant to protect.” It was President Chissano’s idea, he said, to take that legacy of colonial rule and turn it on its head — to put the national park at the service of its neighbors.

Mr. Carr and his team — more than 98 percent of the park’s permanent employees are Mozambicans, and 85 percent are local hires — have endeavored to do just that. Of Gorongosa’s $15 million budget for 2018, $5 million went to “conservation.” 

The rest was spent outside the park, much of it on a suite of social programs serving local villages: after-school girls’ clubs aimed at preventing early marriage and nurturing an interest in the sciences; training and assistance in sustainable agriculture; and mobile medical clinics through which the park implements Mozambique’s national rural health care strategy.

Speaking at a conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 2017, Mr. Carr said people often ask him what should be done to protect African wildlife. 

“And every time I say, ‘Girls in school,’” he said. “It’s the No. 1 thing we will do for this planet.” To that end, he added, Gorongosa supports girls’ clubs in approximately 50 local schools, trains female scientists through a new master’s program in conservation biology and employs women as scientists, administrators and park rangers.

As a young girl in Beira, a port city just north of the park, Dominique Gonçalves grew up hearing her father’s stories of Gorongosa. “At that time, if you were black, you had to be assimilado to get in,” she said, using the old Portuguese term for those subjects of the colonial empire with social standing or money. Ms. Gonçalves’ family had neither.

Today, local people make up the single largest demographic of visitors to Gorongosa, and Ms. Gonçalves, now a research fellow working in the park, says that when she meets young girls, “they want to hear my stories.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of parks in the portfolio of African Parks and the organization’s current budget for them. The portfolio is 15 parks, not 13, with a budget for the current year of $72.5 million, not an annual budget of $45 million.