This Organization Is Trying To Save A National Park

After a devastating civil war, one organization is committed to restoring Zinave National Park to its former glory.

October 15, 2018

3:18 pm

Zinave National Park in Mozambique lost all of its animals. Over the course of a 15-year civil war, the game park went from lively to desolate. The folks at Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) are trying to change that -- bringing life and livelihood back to the park for the sake of the animals and the people of Mozambique. A large part of bringing Zinave back to her former glory is rewilding the park with the types of animals that used to live there. We sat down with PPF manager Bernard van Lente the morning after Moving Giants successfully rehomed 25 elephants there. We discussed everything from the civil war to what it takes to become an anti-poaching ranger.

Moving Giants: So tell us about what happened yesterday here in Zinave!

Bernard van Lente: Yesterday was quite a good day for the park. Actually, it was an exceptional day. We received 25 elephant from the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in Limpopo. A 34-hour journey. They were offloaded and released into the sanctuary and they're doing very well. We’ve tracked them a bit and as expected they’re busy exploring the boundaries at the moment. We are hoping they will settle in and be the start of a whole new elephant population for the park. 

Moving Giants: When you say they’re out exploring the boundaries, how do you know that? Have you seen them?

Bernard van Lente: We've got satellite collars on them. Through that satellite tracking, we can see where they've been moving. As expected, they are trying to find all the sources of water. It’s obviously a new area for them, so they’re walking around the boundaries and trying to situate themselves. They’ll spend the next few days orientating and getting to know the land before they settle in.  

An elephant family explores the terrain. (Credit: James Oatway)

Moving Giants: So Zinave is a national park here in Mozambique. Why were you in need of elephants?

Bernard van Lente: Zinave National Park was created in the '60s and then unfortunately, a civil war broke out in the '70s. With war, the law of the land generally deteriorates so nobody was looking after the park. Because of internal displacement, people moved into the park and animals were pushed out. This resulted in elephants not being in the park for the past 50 years. Elephants are one of the key species of any ecosystem. They change the system by creating disturbance, and disturbance stimulates diversity. And this is absolutely essential for the proper function of all the other components of the system. So without elephants, our whole ecosystem is not functioning the way it should be.

Moving Giants: How significant is this for the park to have these elephants introduced?

Bernard van Lente: It’s the start of getting the park back to where it should be. Having elephants reintroduced -- it will just start opening up pathways, creating clearing for saplings to grow, it effects birds, it effects small predators. All the antelope will start coming because now suddenly new vegetation is being opened up for them. In addition to the elephants, we’re obviously bringing other animals as well to get the whole system going. Elephants tend to target the trees and the woody material and then we bring a lot of bull grazers like buffalo and zebra and blue wildebeests, which will eat the grass and cycle that vegetation back into nature.

Moving Giants: This all sounds great, but the reason we’re having to move the elephants in the first place is because they’re creating too much disturbance at the reserve they’re at now. Won’t that ultimately be the case here?

Bernard van Lente: The thing that I think is really important to remember is that Zinave is a massive park. It’s over 400,000 hectares. So in terms of scale, bringing 100 or 200 elephants here really is not going to have that destructive of an impact. And very importantly, we all know that the elephant population across the continent is under huge pressure from poaching. So we will protect these elephants and help them thrive and then maybe in 50 or 100 years, if we ever get to the point where our elephants are over-populated, then we can actually repeat this process and use the Zinave elephants to help repopulate other parks and reserves in the future.

A baby elephant walks through tall grass with its mother. (Credit: James Oatway)

Moving Giants: How do you intend to protect the elephants? What systems do you have in place to make sure they’re safe?

Bernard van Lente: We have various measures for protecting the elephants. Obviously you need to be well equipped, you need to have well-trained staff. So equipment-wise, through PPF and with the help of the Mozambique government, we have acquired: vehicles, a digital-radio system, equipment for camping, tracking equipment, fencing. We’ve put up a sanctuary fence to protect the elephants initially and we’ve recently graduated another 25 new field rangers from our intensive-training program. Rangers are currently in the park creating protection zones around the sanctuary. So the sanctuary itself is the core area we’re protecting right now, but obviously we want to protect the whole park. So we start in the sanctuary and we work out from there and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. We’ve been expanding our protection outwards. So as the animal population expands, the protection will already be in place. So through a combination of trained staff, the right equipment and the right supervision, we’re quite confident that will be able to protect the elephants.

Moving Giants: How do you train the anti-poaching rangers? What does that process look like?

Bernard van Lente: We have quite a rigorous training regime. We put out an application saying that we needed rangers, and 400 applied. We whittled it down to about 120. They went on a pre-training course that was quite physically exerting. Only 25 completed the course. Those 25 then went through a six-week ranger course. We trained them on the digital radios and build out a smart system where we track and map everything digitally. So as the rangers are on patrols, the information gets sent back to the office and plotted based on their GPS location. All of the information we collect allows us to see patterns, so we can understand when something is out of place or not right.

Moving Giants: And are all of the rangers men?

Bernard van Lente: We have six female rangers and there are two additional female rangers that are currently in training. You know, they run 20 kilometers a day with 20-30 kilo weights on their back, and there is no exception because you're a lady, you don't get treated differently, everybody gets treated the same. And these ladies actually went through this course, they made it. So we're quite impressed with their ability. And, you know, it’s important for us to have women within our conservation efforts because it’s not just men that poach. They are silently supported by girlfriends and women back home. So it’s important for everyone to see the anti-poaching effort is not just done by men.

Moving Giants: What do you think it means to younger girls to see women working in these roles?

Bernard van Lente: You know, if you’ve got a hero, you try to be that hero. I mean you see it in sports, right? You'll have an athlete becoming the best in the world in their sport and suddenly that whole country is delivering athletes. It works the same with a hero who works in conservation. You see someone and decide that you want to be like that and you are capable of being like that. We think it will awaken an interest in the profession.

One of Mozambique's first female anti-poaching rangers. (Credit: James Oatway)

Moving Giants: Do you hope to ultimately have more female rangers onboard?

Bernard van Lente: Yeah. The big thing for us would be that it should be on an equal basis, you know? Female applicants come through the same process and have to meet the same qualifications. If you get chosen just because you’re a woman, it tends to have a negative effect. But if you come through the ranks like our female rangers did, you show it can be done. And, for us, that will actually create more belief amongst people that women can do this.

With the subsistence poacher, you have to try and put yourself in their situation. If you've got nothing to eat, you've got nothing to lose.

-Bernard van Lente

Moving Giants: What kind of relationship does the park have with the people who live around it?

Bernard van Lente: At PPF, we've got a co-management agreement with the national parks, so we work together with the national park and the national conservation agency that works with the people in the area. So we're obviously making a big effort to have good relations with the communities around us. We regularly meet with them, we keep them updated on the progress of what we are doing. And we’re working with them, too, because people will not need to poach or log if they’ve got other economic means to survive, because poaching is not easy. Logging is not easy. But if you can create alternative work for people that will improve their livelihood, you reduce poaching. Our relationship with the community is actually so good that at this stage, when we go and introduce ourselves and our new rangers and explain why what they’re doing will help them, they actually voluntarily hand in the weapons they use to poach with, which is a very good sign.

Moving Giants: Can you speak a little bit more to the connection between poaching and poverty? I think a lot of folks imagine poachers as mustachioed villains that are just raking it in.

Bernard van Lente: You get basically two kinds of poachers. Your subsistence poacher and your commercial poacher. With the subsistence poacher, you have to try and put yourself in their situation. If you've got nothing to eat, you've got nothing to lose. You don't really care if you get caught for catching a small antelope or a rabbit or anything. And then you’ve got the other type: the commercial poacher. Now, that's purely a guy that wants to get rich. He wants to make money illegally. They’re not there for survival, they're just there to drive a fancy car and get a big house and those kind of things. So those are the types of poachers that we'll work really hard to catch and have convicted.

Moving Giants: It sounds like with subsistence poaching, it’s basically just a symptom of poverty. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of the civil war on the economy?

Bernard van Lente: Yeah, look the civil war was before my time. I just know it, like any war, it was quite bad. About a million people lost their lives in the civil war. It was quite a brutal war. And, you know, even to this day people, they still feel the effects of the war in terms of the economy of the country, the protection of the land. And during the civil war, systems collapsed and people were forced to live off the land, which means poaching and cutting trees and just trying to survive. So to rebuild the economy is still extremely important. That's part of PPF’s purpose. We want to create a better life for people around the park, and that has the added benefit of also reducing poaching in the park.

Moving Giants: If you were able to transform Zinave back into a national park filled with wildlife that attracts tourism, what will that mean for the people here?

Bernard van Lente: Tourism is a very important economic factor, because it is a renewable resource, which is rare. Unlike other industries -- a coal mine will close eventually, a diamond mine will close eventually -- but tourism can go on forever. Generally, we’ve seen from other countries in Africa that tourism also grows at a much quicker rate than any of these other industries. Africa has a lot to offer in terms of nature tourism. And when tourists come in, it’s not just paying to go on a game drive. He flies in, he buys a gold ring as a souvenir, on the way he stops for a drink, he talks to the locals, he buys their handicrafts. So the effect of a tourist should never be underestimated. It’s not just restricted to the park, it’s much more widespread than that. Tourism's role in the Mozambique economy could be transformational.

Moving Giants: And how do elephants contribute to tourism?  

Bernard van Lente: Elephants are an iconic species. People like seeing them. They're excited when they see them. Sometimes elephants create a bit of drama to make it more exciting. Not dangerous, but you know, it's just an impressive species to see. So people will actually make an effort to come and look at the elephants. So in terms of having the elephants as an added attraction to the park, that is a major factor. People will maybe not drive so far as to come, or fly in to come and look at an impala, although impala are beautiful. But if you know there are elephants and that there are a lot of them, that's a different story.

So the effect of a tourist should never be underestimated. It’s not just restricted to the park, it’s much more widespread than that. Tourisms role in the Mozambique economy could be transformational.

-Bernard van Lente