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The ecologist studying elephants in Gorongosa, Mozambique, attributes success in the recovery of populations in part to local communities, stressing that the National Park sees their well-being too as a priority.
“It’s no use giving money or alternative ways of living if we don’t give autonomy, responsibility and leadership to local voices – if we don’t look at the well-being of these communities as a priority, too,” said Dominique Gonçalves, who leads the Elephant Ecology Project at the Gorongosa National Park.
The elephant population in Gorongosa fell from 2,500 to about 200 animals during the 1981-1994 civil war in Mozambique, but since then the number of elephants has quintupled to close to 1,000, according to the researcher’s figures.
In an interview with Lusa before delivering a talk entitled “The Link Between Conservation and Human Flowering” at the 2022 National Geographic Summit, which takes place today in Lisbon, Gonçalves stressed that the rise in elephant numbers was “a great advance”.
“It’s a big increase over the last 30 years. That’s pretty much my age, from the time I was born until today,” she underlined.
The young specialist attributed this success not only to the park restoration project embarked on in 2008 when the Mozambican government joined up with the Carr Foundation, but also to the resident communities around the park, which are “helping a lot to protect these elephants”.
For there to be coexistence between humans and wildlife, she says – for there to continue to be elephants and lions, it is necessary to “give priority to the well-being of the people who live near these places”.
According to Gonçalves, the Gorongosa Park “is a leader” in the vision of conservation and human development “as two sides of the same coin”, and invests “much more” in human and sustainable development than in conservation itself.
“We believe this can turn into a virtuous cycle,” she said.
But the commitment to human development is not just about building schools or hospitals; “it goes deeper”.
“It’s really listening, having local voices in decision-making, it’s really empowering. (…) We need local voices as champions of the biodiversity we wish to preserve,” she said.
She admitted that there are still conflicts between humans and elephants, as happened in January, when two people were killed by elephants in Gorongosa, and acknowledged that this would not simply end.
But she stressed that the park works to reduce the probability of such events, for example with rangers monitoring the location of the elephant herds through GPS collars, and reacting if they approach villages.
And communities themselves are taught to scare the elephants away using fireworks, which work well as a deterrent, guiding the animals back into the park, which has no physical boundaries.
“This is something that happens today, but we don’t know how much longer it will work,” Gonçalves says – the animals are intelligent and learn quickly.
Another measure that the park has developed is to use bee hives, which are mechanically activated when the elephants approach, causing swarming which turns the elephants back. One advantage is that the inhabitants get to produce honey, Gonçalves explained.
Gorongosa Park has also been building brick and cement barns, more resistant and airtight than the traditional barns, which allow the elephants to smell and come to eat the stored grain, often bringing down the precarious structures.
With these and other measures like education, Gonçalves explained, the park tries to ensure that the basic needs of the communities are met, because “when they have better life chances, better income”, people want to participate in conservation.
With an area of about 4,067 square kilometres, Gorongosa National Park was once home to one of the densest populations of wildlife in all of Africa, including carnivores, herbivores and more than 500 species of birds, but the civil war had a devastating impact, with 95% of large mammals and ecosystems put under heavy pressure.
The park, an area of around 4,000 square kilometres, is located in the province of Sofala, at the southern tip of the East African Rift Valley.
The Carr Foundation, created by US citizen Gregory Carr, joined forces with the Government of Mozambique to protect the park and, in 2008, signed a joint management contract for 20 years, which was extended for another 25 years, committing itself, on that occasion, to an investment of US$40 million.