Gorongosa National Park was once the crown jewel of Mozambique’s national parks and one of the most fabled in Africa. But after 28 years of war, the park is now almost empty.

The massive numbers of elephants and lions that once brought Greta Garbo and John Wayne to the park can no longer be found. Even after Mozambique’s civil war ended in 1993, the park lay dormant, ignored by a government dealing with pressing humanitarian and development issues. But many people in Mozambique and the rest of southern Africa remember this almost mythical place that had a unique concentration of Africa’s wildlife.

Greg Carr, a Boston-based philanthropist who made his fortune in voice messaging, was looking for a chance to put his money to work for a higher purpose. Carr already had projects in Afghanistan, but he had been bitten by the Africa bug. When visiting Mozambique, he heard of this neglected former jewel, and after eight years his dream of rebuilding Gorongosa National Park is becoming a reality. He has pledged up to $40 million over 30 years for the restoration efforts.

The statistics are sobering. Before the war, the park had 14,000 buffalo, 2,000 elephants and 5,500 wildebeest, all sharing a park smaller than Yellowstone National Park. But in the aftermath of the conflict only a few dozen buffalo remained. The elephants had been cut down to one or two hundred and those that survived were very shy. Just a smattering of wildebeest still roamed the verdant plains.

In the face of such losses, other parks in the region stepped in. With the Carr Foundation in partnership with the Mozambican government, Kruger National Park in South Africa helped with restocking and the park saw a resurgence in game. Animal numbers are up across the board, and not only the restocked ones — other animal populations are booming because this unique ecosystem has something special about it.

Water in southern Africa is the key to everyone’s survival. Every year a drought occurs. The dry season is cyclical and lasts from April to November. This cycle creates an abundance of fodder but only for seven months of year. In most of southern Africa, people and animals must struggle through the months of drought.

But in Gorongosa National Park, there is another factor at play. Nearby, and crucially not inside the park, Gorongosa Mountain rises thousands of feet into the air. This mountain, so close to Mozambique’s coastline, creates a weather system that catches clouds drifting in from the Indian Ocean and provides year-round rainfall that in turn fills Lake Urema and provides the life-giving waters to the park. This is Gorongosa’s secret, the key to the park’s abundance.

A long-term agreement was signed in 2008 between the Carr Foundation and the government to run the park together, and there are plans for an educational institution, four clinics for surrounding communities and more. Carr hopes eco-tourism will offer the area a sustainable means of development.

Out of the shell-shattered remnants of the old park lodge at Chitengo, a renaissance is under way. There is a restaurant with good food and gorgeous views, game drives, an anti-poaching patrol and comfortable bungalows to stay in. To escape the heat of Mozambican day, the old swimming pool has been rehabilitated and refilled. Guests can rub elbows with park officers and staff at the bar nearby.

There are problems however. Gorongosa Mountain, so crucial to the survival of the park, but not in the park, is being deforested. Many conservationists feel that if the forest on the mountain is gone, the park’s water will dry up or the lake will become too silted and this special eco-system will collapse. There park has had a problem with poaching as well. When poachers get caught, the local judiciary sentences them to work in the park for free, rather than going to prison.

Despite the problems, the Carr Foundation has continued on, and by visiting this important place, each person — and their money — becomes part of the long-term solution for the renewal of one of Africa’s crown jewels.

Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to correct a spelling error.

More GlobalPost dispatches on wildlife conservation: 

To kill an elephant 

Face time at the Cairo zoo

Profits vs. primates on Jungle Beach


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