How a focus on girls has nurtured the rebirth of one of Africa’s great wildlife parks

In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, nature has roared back to life thanks to a commitment to human development – with a focus on girls – alongside the protection of animals

La guarda forestal Antonia Albano Vasco, de 31 años, patrulla el Parque Nacional de Gorongosa, en Mozambique, el pasado agosto.Video: EPV
Radhika Aligh Ros Russell
Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique) -

With its emerald green floodplains, hippos wallowing in glassy water, eagles swooping over elephant herds, lions slouched on tree trunks and impala grazing to the shimmering horizon, Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park is an earthly paradise where you feel you’ve been gifted a glimpse of the planet as it existed before humanity.

But during 16 years of civil war in Mozambique, humans left their mark on the park with disastrous consequences. By the end of the war in 1992, Gorongosa was void of life — nearly all animals had been destroyed by soldiers and poachers. Only small, fearful groups remained, their home a menace of traps and snares.

An ambitious rewilding project that began nearly two decades has changed all that. Across Gorongosa, nature has rebounded with lush exuberance. Perhaps surprisingly, this has been achieved not only with measures to protect animals, but also through a commitment to improving the lives of the 200,000 people living in the buffer zone around the park.

A lion relaxes in the evening light in Gorongosa National Park.
A lion relaxes in the evening light in Gorongosa National Park.Radhika Aligh

By investing in education, healthcare, job creation and livelihoods, the key to this rare conservation vision has been to nurture human potential — with girls’ education and the empowerment of women at its heart.

“If we want to see a generation of change, we need to focus on girls and women,” says Larissa Sousa, the park’s associate director of communications. “If these children grow up understanding and benefiting from what the park is providing them, it’s one of our biggest ways of trying to send the message that they need to protect the environment, they need to protect the park.”

Gorongosa’s transformation began in 2004 when American philanthropist Greg Carr visited the park and “in a leap of faith” decided to invest $40 million of his tech fortune into reviving and rewilding its one million acres, in a public-private partnership with the Mozambican government that has just been renewed for another 25 years.

Carr decided to do things differently. Gorongosa was no longer to be a gated park, accessible only to wealthy tourists or game hunters, as it was under Portuguese colonial rule. For the park to thrive, the people living around it needed to be invested in its future.

The park’s warden, Pedro Muagura, recalls how families like his living next to the park could not enjoy the natural wonders right on their doorstep. “Black people were not allowed in,” he says. “In my family, I’m the first one to be in this park. My father and my mother died without ever visiting.”

Children take part in girls’ club activities at Mussinha Primary School near Gorongosa, Mozambique.
Children take part in girls’ club activities at Mussinha Primary School near Gorongosa, Mozambique.Ros Russell

To restore the park’s wildlife after the war, Muagura and his team reintroduced populations of elephants, buffalo, zebras leopards, wildebeest and wild dogs. Other species, such as impala and waterbuck, rebounded spontaneously once the guns fell silent and the traps were cleared. Just six lions survived the war; now around 200 roam the park’s forests and savannah.

Today the park is the biggest employer in Sofala province in central Mozambique, in jobs ranging from safari guides to drivers, welders to scientific researchers. Local communities have access to park land to grow forest coffee in return for planting native trees as well as cultivating cashew nuts and harvesting wild honey. School children are taken on safaris, free of charge, to spot the park’s lions, hippos and crocodiles.

People at the centre of everything

Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a 2,700 km coastline leaving it vulnerable to more and more frequent climate catastrophes. When Cyclone Idai swept across its central belt in 2019, Gorongosa’s management quickly organised a relief effort to deliver food, water and medicines to devastated local communities.

The disaster highlighted the importance of preserving wild spaces to absorb rainfall, and, in the longer term, planet-warming carbon dioxide that stokes extreme weather events. Gorongosa’s leaders believe the park is a model that should be replicated in other regions.

“I’ve been in other countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, but I’ve never been in a place whereby people are considered to be at the centre of conservation. We put people at the centre of everything,” says Muagura, who won a prestigious IUCN award for his pioneering work. “We are running education, agriculture, we are running industry, we are processing coffee, we employ women to be rangers. This is a model, the very best of conservation.”

Girls, traditionally excluded from advancing in education and employment and vulnerable to climate shocks, are at the centre of this conservation blueprint.

Emilia Jacinto Augusto, a ranger in Gorongosa National Park, pets a rescued pangolin.
Emilia Jacinto Augusto, a ranger in Gorongosa National Park, pets a rescued pangolin.Radhika Aligh

Funded by the park, the clubs run a range of extra-curricula activities for girls with the aim of challenging the tradition of early marriage and encouraging girls to stay in education.

Through the clubs, the girls are matched with a madrinha, or godmother, someone from outside the family to guide them through adolescence and beyond. “The madrinha looks for signs that a family might be planning a marriage,” says Vilma Nhambi, who runs the girls’ clubs. “Sometimes we see the girl changes her appearance, her hair or clothes, or crates of beer will be going to a certain house. Then they’ll go to the house and see what they are planning.”

This simple intervention has quickly shifted attitudes and expectations. “We make parents aware they shouldn’t marry their daughters off early, at least until they’re 20 years old, and we tell them they should let the child study for their own good,” says Marta Joáo Meque, a 30-year-old madrinha to four girls. “Now we find the girls will assert themselves, they stand their ground.”

Gorongosa offers them a glimpse of a future the girls could not have dreamed of a generation ago. For those who want to go on to pursue science, there are internships and a master’s degree programme for young women at the park has inspired research into bat behaviour, butterfly habitats and the carbon-capture qualities of tree roots in the park’s world-leading science laboratories.

Samples of flora and fauna species in the park are collected and painstakingly documented, in order to build an inventory of the park’s biodiversity — the first in any African nature reserve.

And the park was the first in Mozambique to introduce female anti-poaching rangers, says Sousa: “We want to tell the story that a woman can do anything they want. Being a ranger was something that was only for men, because it’s very physical, you need to carry 10 kilos on your back walking under the sun. But then we challenged it.”

The future of conservation is in their hands

On a late August morning, before the heat of the day rises, four young women rangers dressed in khaki uniforms and armed with hunting rifles jump down from their vehicle and disperse out into the bush, communicating in hand signals and coded whistles.

Emilia Jacinto Augusto, a 26-year-old mother, is committed to conserving Gorongosa’s wildlife for the future, despite the 21-day patrols taking her away from her two young children.

“For a woman to do this job we need courage. We can’t give up, saying we’re too far away from the family. I hope that one day my children will also come to work in Gorongosa, like me, their mother, who is understanding and protecting these animals.”

Unlike other models of conservation, which focus on protection of animals arguably at the expense of the human communities living around them, it is support for girls that has underpinned this unusual conservation vision.

“If we look at deforestation and poaching, we see the people were cutting trees and killing animals because they didn’t have alternatives. But if these girls have an alternative way of living they no longer need to do that. If you want to make conservation work, you need to give girls maximum support,” adds Muguara. “The future of conservation is in their hands.”

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