Over 1 million people died in the civil war that raged in Mozambique from 1977 to 1992, and the conflict also had disastrous consequences for the country's wildlife. In Gorongosa National Park, 90 percent of the animals were caught in the crossfire, killed for food or poached for commerce. Two decades later, the park is making a miraculous comeback, thanks to the efforts of conservationists and the Gorongosa Restoration Project.
The six-hour PBS series "Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise," airing in three parts starting Sept. 22, documents this encouraging resurrection through the lens of wildlife cinematographer Bob Poole. In the first two hours, Poole joins scientist Paola Bouley to GPS-tag lions and, accompanied by his elephant-behaviorist sister Joyce, has some close encounters with aggressive pachyderms.
"The two years I spent filming the park's transformation fulfills a life-long dream of mine. I was able to combine my passion for animal conservation with my love of documentary filmmaking," says Poole, who discussed his adventures with MNN.
MNN: Why did you want to get involved in the project and series?
Bob Poole: I've been working in Gorongosa Park for a few years and had fallen in love with the park, so there was nothing I'd rather do than immerse myself in this project. I've been a cameraman for nature documentaries for years, but this gave me a chance to stay in one place for a long time and get involved. Gorongosa represents hope in terms of the possibility of what could be done. There are so many places left in Africa where the habitat is relatively intact but the wildlife is gone. I think Gorongosa shows that nature can be saved. If we are willing put the energy into it and protect it, nature will come back.
What are the challenges facing the park and biggest threats to wildlife in Gorongosa today?
To paraphrase the renowned E.O. Wilson, a scientific advisor to the park: "It's a lot easier to save the ecosystem than try to put it back together again."
After the war nearly decimated the wildlife in Gorongosa, we're finding that some animal populations are recovering on their own, at an extraordinary rate. For some, it will take years to reestablish the population but some just won't be able to. Zebras will not recover on their own; their numbers are too small. There are breeding programs in place, by bringing in zebras from other conservation areas. Most of all, it will just take time. Poaching will always be an issue but anti-poaching campaigns are continually evolving with new methods and technologies. Illegal mining, logging and settlements inside the park also pose threats.
In the first episode, we learn that lions aren't rebounding as fast as other species. Why?
Lions are incredibly territorial and because of their behavior, they work in prides. Pride takeover means cub mortality; the lion taking over kills the cubs, so frequent turnover makes it very hard to establish big prides, which are needed for stability. Each male lion killed leads to the death of his cubs and lethal fighting between other lions in the struggle to fill the void. Big prides have an easier time defending themselves and their territory. Establishing big prides is difficult, however, when pride males and coalitions of males are killed. Death of big males leads to constant takeover, constant killing of cubs and constant turmoil in the lion population. Nothing symbolizes rebirth more than the comeback of lions. They're on the verge of an amazing repopulation, but it will take time.
We sometimes thing of elephants as friendly giants, but the ones in Gorongosa that charged your vehicle were anything but. What's behind this behavior?
These elephants are different from all of the other elephants I've come in contact in Africa because they act very aggressively towards humans. There used to be more than 4,000 elephants in the ecosystem, but more than 90 percent were killed during the wars. The older elephants that survive today would have seen their family members killed and therefore they distrust us. It will take a long time for them to get over their fear of people. However, we found that by spending time with family groups, and showing them that we were not there to cause harm, they became less and less fearful and more accepting. Being chased by elephants can be terrifying. It's actually really bad when that happens, and it's a dangerous job to convince the elephants to trust people and not to charge. Other elephant populations across Africa are being lost due to ivory poaching. Gorongosa is actually great elephant habitat and because of this, the elephant population there has a real chance of surviving.
You grew up in Kenya. How have you seen Africa change, for better and for worse?
Africa has changed tremendously. Many of the wild spaces have disappeared as the population continues to grow. There are very few places like Gorongosa left on the continent, which makes it so important and special. Africa is very resilient, and this series shows that things can recover.
My father worked in wildlife conservation, which led to my career in wildlife. I learned photography from him. When I was 17, National Geographic was doing a special on elephants in Kenya, and I got on that crew as a camera assistant. I learned from my father the importance of perseverance; it’s a long, slow struggle to save and protect wild places. But it can be done, as we’ve seen in Gorongosa.
What are your favorite species to photograph now?
I love elephants, because they are incredibly intelligent and can be amazingly trusting. They can sense who is there to help and who is there to harm. Elephants are so powerful yet at the same time so vulnerable. They don't rely on their eyesight the way that we do, so it makes them easy targets. We need to protect them.
Besides elephants and lions, what else does the series cover?
More of Gorongosa’s amazing wildlife, from zebras to crocodiles to the extraordinary bird and insect species found in the park. Although humans have inhabited Gorongosa forever, 90 percent of it is a roadless wilderness that had never been filmed or investigated by scientists. I’ve always been interested exploration, and this gave me a real opportunity. The expedition to the bird colony during wet season was a favorite, as well as getting to explore the huge aggregations of crocodiles in the north.
The second episode depicts some unrest. What's the political situation right now, and could it impact the park?
Luckily, the conflict resolved itself while we were filming. The leader of Renamo [a rebel movement] actually came down from his Mt. Gorongosa base to sign a peace agreement, and he even put his name on ballot for president. The end to this conflict is vital because the park needs stability. Gorongosa Park is now open to tourism, which really helps in the restoration efforts.
What do you hope viewers take away, and do?
It's not simple to put ecosystems back together, but it can be done. We learned in Gorongosa that some animals come back very quickly on their own, but for other animals, like the lions and the elephants, it's going to take a long time before those populations stabilize. I want viewers to see that this idea of restoring and protecting biodiversity could be done anywhere, as nature is very resilient if given a chance. And I hope viewers visit the park. It's a trip I highly recommend to anyone, from the seasoned safari traveler to those who have never been to Africa before. You will see a pristine wilderness. By visiting you're supporting the project and the people who live and work there, and you become a part of the story.