The Call to Rewild

African national parks with healthy wildlife populations can be economic engines. Is Mozambique ready to be the next new tourism hotspot?

August 17, 2018

7:30 am

Eneida Pitroce was born in 1983, right in the middle of Mozambique’s brutal civil war.

One million people perished in the war (1977-1992), which was among the world’s deadliest conflicts of the last 40 years. And humans were far from the only casualties — the wildlife in Mozambique’s once-teeming national parks all but disappeared, consumed by both opposing armies (many units of which camped out in the parks) and a starving population.

While Pitroce doesn’t recall much firsthand, she does have small, telling remembrances of life during wartime, such as that “whenever a bus would stop, people were scared to get off because of landmines. And the roads were really bad — they used to bomb every four to five kilometers so that drivers would have to stop, and then they [guerrillas and thieves] would raid the cars. It used to be hectic.”

Pitroce was not yet 10 when the hostilities ceased. Now 35 and based near the Bazaruto archipelago, she this year founded Uthimbwa, a tourism and hospitality consulting company, named after a word meaning “ours” in the Shitswa language.

“Obviously I have heard the stories of the older generation,” says Pitroce. “And if you look at old videos, you look at how Mozambique was before the war, it was very different. During and after the war, it was very difficult to travel, and then everything had to be rebuilt. But now the country is doing quite well, in terms of tourism. If we keep on going at this pace and creating a more sustainable environment with eco-tourism principles, we can rebuild the process — we can make it good.”

A baby elephant walking through the veldt. (Credit: James Oatway)

More than a quarter century after a truce brought an end to the war, Mozambique indeed seems ready to bring tourists back to the country. The tourism sector is showing growth: a World Economic Forum report on Travel & Tourism Competitiveness shows that Mozambique climbed eight places in 2017 to 122nd among all nations. (Of course, they have a long way to go to compete with regional tourism powerhouses like South Africa, 53rd; Namibia, 82nd; and Botswana, 85th.) One reason cited for Mozambique’s growth is the government’s “placing more value on its natural resources.”

One such natural resource is Zinave National Park.

Situated in southern Mozambique, about equal distance from Vilanculos on the coast and from the Zimbabwe border, Zinave is a huge park — over 1 million acres, or roughly the size of Glacier National Park in Montana, USA.

Zinave was at one time a thriving park, home to lions, buffalo, elephants and other iconic species. But as a result of the war, along with its wildlife and critical infrastructure and management, Zinave lost its tourism appeal.

But now, co-managed by Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas and  non-profit Peace Parks Foundation, Zinave is in the midst of a fascinating turnaround.

Whenever a bus would stop, people were scared to get off because of landmines. And the roads were really bad — they used to bomb every four to five kilometers so that drivers would have to stop.

Eneida Pitroce, Mozambican tourism and hospitality consultant

Vital to achieving the vision of a revitalized  Zinave is the “rewilding” of the conservation area  by  importing a variety of animal species from other parts of Africa to Zinave (a process known as translocation). First to come in were the plains grazers: various antelope species, giraffes, impala, zebras, and wildebeest (a process that will continue for all of these species). Next were elephants, and starting in late July, 48 elephants were translocated to Zinave from South Africa.

The translocated animals of all species have been placed in a fenced-in area, about 71 square miles in size, dubbed “the sanctuary.” Once any species shows high-level growth, a portion of those animals will be released into the larger park, an area of more than 1,500 square miles.

“We’ll bring in lion in a couple of years’ time,” says Antony Alexander, Senior Project Manager for Peace Parks Foundation. “When you have lion here, then you have your product. First you need to get your plains game numbers up to an acceptable level — if you bring lions in too early, they’ll eat your assets.”

Acknowledging that tourists want to see game, Alexander recognizes that the park has some years to go before it will be a viable destination. “We have to get the wildlife product up first,” he notes. “We have a quite ambitious plan to get as many animals here as quickly as possible. But parks take a long time to develop — that’s the reality. It could take 20 years to reach full development, however through the rewilding program we believe we will have a viable tourism product within three years.”

But that kind of investment — financially and in time and resources — could be the kind of pay-off Mozambique needs.

“There is $2 billion revenue in the region from wildlife-based tourism,” notes Brian Child, an Advisor to the Peace Parks Foundation’s Community Development Program, as well as an associate professor of Geography and African Studies at the University of Florida. “You look at a place like Zinave and wonder ‘Why is [Zinave] not 10 times bigger than it is?’ “

Elephant destruction at the VLNR. (Credit: James Oatway)

BUILDING RELATIONS WITH LOCALS

After a peace agreement was reached in the civil war, local populations surrounding Mozambique’s parks were not initially enthused about the development of the parks. Many had found relative shelter within the parks during the war, and many stayed within the confines of the parks after the war ended. These indigenous populations — who live in extreme poverty and on subsistence farming (and at times, subsistence hunting) — can have a very different perspective on wildlife.

“To a lot of people around here, an animal is just an animal,” says Pitroce. “We're not very good about treating animals well around here. We’re just concerned with putting meals on the table. We're not educated about what it should mean to us as a population, or as a destination. You look at elephants as just the ivory, at a rhino as just a horn, for the money you'll get for it. Education is so important about teaching what the animals could mean to us. Connecting those dots is not easy as it seems. They need to be informed of the reason why we want to preserve the animals. What are we trying to achieve: instead of putting food on your table for one day, what about putting meals on your table for a whole month, a whole year. They suddenly see people coming here to see animals, not to take the ivory but just to see — that's a whole new experience for the people here.”

To build on that education, Peace Parks Foundation has been vigorously reaching out to communities in and around Zinave, teaching residents about the importance of animal welfare and how wildlife can better benefit the community alive. The response has been encouraging.

“Each of these communities outside of the park have traditional leaders (i.e. village chiefs or political heads) and they are all supporting the project,” says Trevor Landrey, Peace Parks Foundation’s Operations Manager at Zinave. “They are helping us encourage people to hand in their weapons.”

Zinave was at one time a thriving park, home to lions, buffalo, elephants and other iconic species. But as a result of the war, along with its wildlife and critical infrastructure and management, Zinave lost its tourism appeal.

Additionally, De Beers Group has committed $500,000 ($100,00 a year for the next five years) to Peace Parks Foundation, to be used to further develop  a wide spectrum of anti-poaching measures for conservation areas in Mozambique, including the hiring and training of rangers. That training of rangers for Zinave is being overseen by Landrey, an ex-special forces soldier.

“All our ranger-patrol plans are integrated into a ‘SMART’ (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, the name of the technology) plan,” adds Landrey. “At the moment, we are one of only two parks using SMART systems in Mozambique [the other being Limpopo National Park]. We can see exactly where the rangers are, what they are doing. All patrols are planned, debriefed, and all intel entered into the SMART system.”

[UPDATE: The editors have learned that Mozambique has agreed to national adoption of the technology, which will be rolled out systematically.]

One selling point for the local populations is that 20% of all revenue from Mozambique national parks goes to the local communities, thus incentivizing them to respect and protect the parks and their wildlife.

But old attitudes take time to change. “People around here are naturally wary of large animals, such as elephants,” says Child. “They’re dangerous. It’s like the way people in Yellowstone feel about wolves. But if you tie them to the economy and create jobs — protected wildlife areas create a lot of jobs. Which in turn create even more jobs in the surrounding areas. We’re trying to convince politicians that parks can be economic engines. Look at Kruger National Park [in South Africa] — how many jobs they create in the park and in the surrounding areas. That’s where we need to be in 20 years.”