When you stand in the Chimanimani Mountains, it’s hard to reconcile their current serenity with their besieged past. From the valleys below, huge gray stone walls rise above dense deciduous forests. Hidden among various crevices are ancient cave paintings, made in the late Stone Age by the San people, also known as the Bushmen; they represent dancing men and women and hunting parties chasing elephants. There is even a painting of a crocodile so huge it can deter you from the shore forever.
Climbing higher, towards Mount Binga, the highest peak in Mozambique, the forests flatten out into expanses of mountain meadows. Wild, isolated, lost in time, it is a place where rich local traditions live, where we still speak of ancestral spirits and sacred rituals. A local guide once told me about a sacred mountain, Nhamabombe, where the rainmakers still go to make rain.
It’s not every day that a country with a past plagued by war and environmental destruction fulfills an ambitious conservation goal. But that’s exactly what happened in Mozambique last year when, after overhauling its environmental code, the country officially designated Chimanimani as a new national park.
Mozambique has seen its share of grief, and Chimanimani is no exception. After the country gained independence from Portuguese colonizers in 1975, it was plunged into civil war. No less than a million Mozambicans have died. Likewise, a countless number of wild animals, which were hunted for their meat or whose parts were exchanged for weapons.
The Chimanimani Mountains became a front line and their passes became transits for guerrilla soldiers during the Rhodesian Bush War, which lasted from 1964 to 1979, and the Mozambican Civil War, which spanned from 1977 to 1992.
Located on the border with Zimbabwe, about 90 miles southwest of Gorongosa, Mozambique’s most famous national park, Chimanimani National Park marks the latest triumph of an environmental renaissance for a country where, there is to barely 30 years, the armies were still financing wars with the blood of poached wildlife.
Across the country, the Mozambique National Parks Authority, the National Administration of Conservation Areas, is working with private partners to boost wildlife numbers and restore ecosystem function. The most important projects are in Gorongosa National Park.
In part because of the country’s history of conflict, Mozambique’s biodiversity is poorly studied and biological expeditions have been scarce. Therefore, a first step was to launch two surveys on biodiversity in Chimanimani, led by Dr Piotr Naskrecki, director of the EO Wilson laboratory on biodiversity in Gorongosa, and funded by BIOFUND, a non-profit organization dedicated to conservation, and Fauna & Flora International, an international wildlife conservation organization. The expeditions involved scientists from seven countries, including several from Mozambique.
As a doctoral student doing my field research in Gorongosa, I participated as a mammalian expert in the annual biodiversity surveys. After completing my doctorate. in 2018 i switched to a career in photojournalism. I did my last two biodiversity surveys in 2018 and 2019 – first in the Chimanimani buffer zone, then in the heart of Chimanimani – as a photographer.
These surveys are like biological treasure hunts. Scientists, each with a different specialty, are unleashed into the landscape to unearth as many species as possible.
Mammalogists have set up camera traps for large mammals like antelopes, live traps for small mammals like rodents, and fog nets for bats. Bird watchers mainly arm themselves with binoculars, their ears and an astonishing memory for birdsong. By day entomologists sweep their butterfly nets across the prairies, and at night often stand in a light surrounded by clouds of insects, tearing them out of their hair and waiting for something interesting to land.
Herpetologists, or reptile and amphibian specialists, pull rubber bands to temporarily stun lizards, dive knee deep in water after nimble frogs, and generally avoid being bitten by poisonous snakes away from medical attention.
Botanists, on the other hand, have a quiet task: there is something relaxing and almost elegant about walking the mountainside, inspecting beautiful flowers, and pressing paper for posterity.
Biodiversity surveys aren’t for the faint of heart, and they cast doubt on the idea that scientists are all boring nerds in lab coats.
Over the years, I myself have been bitten by a tarantula, several bats, a mouse, countless insects and even a snake (non-poisonous). Once, back in New Jersey after an investigation, a doctor rinsed my ears when I complained of a choked hearing. Dozens of tiny insects, buried in wax, sank in different shapes and sizes. (Experts often wear plugs in their ears when standing in the light of insects for this exact reason.)
There is something about this change of pace that I have always found extremely appealing. On the chilly Chimanimani mornings, scientists who didn’t need to get up before dawn to hunt their species lounged around, sipping instant coffee from plastic cups and watching the clouds cast shadows over the dome. giant rocky.
With a diverse set of rare and endemic bird species, Chimanimani is a bird watcher’s paradise. In Rio Nyahedzi, a camp about 4,000 feet above sea level, investigating birders found the bokmakierie, a bird that was last seen in Mozambique in the 1970s (Nyahedzi est near Mount Binga, which sits directly on the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe.)
As the park gains attention, it will also attract hikers and climbers. Some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the park are 15 miles from the nearest road, and you can walk for days without seeing another human. The park vibrates with solitude, adventure and discovery.
At the end of the two surveys, Chimanimani scientists had found more than 1,400 species: 475 plants, 43 mammals, 260 birds, 67 amphibians and reptiles, and at least 582 species of insects. Some are new to science.
“It was incredibly productive as a rapid study,” said Rob Harris, of the Fauna & Flora International program in Mozambique, noting that the discoveries took place in a relatively short period of time.
The incredible diversity revealed by the polls is only part of what we know. Overall, the Chimanimani Mountains are known to contain almost 1,000 plant species alone. Seventy-six plant and animal species are endemic to the Chimanimani Mountains, meaning they do not exist anywhere else on Earth.
Like all wild places, Chimanimani’s future is anything but certain. Endemic species are particularly threatened by climate change; due to their limited scope, they have nowhere to go as conditions become unsuitable. And the growth of the human population will continue to put the park’s surroundings at risk. “The deforestation outside the park and in the buffer zone was alarming,” said Zak Pohlen, ornithologist.
But as I reflect on these investigations and my time in Mozambique, I can’t help but feel hopeful. I am inspired every day by the passion of young Mozambican environmentalists to save the wild nature of their endangered country. And above all, I am inspired by their optimism.
One of the objectives of these surveys is to train young Mozambicans to take on leadership roles in conservation. Ana Gledis da Conceição, a Mozambican mammalogist, for example, has spent several years helping me in the study of mammals; in 2019, she co-led the mammalian team with Mnqobi Mamba, a master’s student at Eswatini University.
Ms da Conceição says she is exactly where she is supposed to be – a young scientist who fights for biodiversity conservation. “I want to invite young people like me to embrace this cause for the good of all of us,” she said.
“Still,” she added, “Mozambique has a lot to contribute to the future of conservation.”