National Parks of Mozambique

Guided kayak mangrove experience on Ibo Island.
By Mike Slater and Willie Olivier

During Mozambique's civil upheaval, large-scale organized poaching systematically removed almost all big game from the bush. I've driven the length and breadth of Mozambique through seemingly pristine environments without spotting anything bigger than rabbits and rats, even at night. Mozambicans were reduced to hunter-gatherer status and in some areas even locusts and ants were harvested almost to extinction.

Birdlife has recovered to some extent but only the most remote areas offer the chance to view the 'Big Five' (on foot and with experienced guides, as wildlife is still persecuted by poachers from as far afield as Somalia).

Officially, the Mozambican government recognises wildlife's tourist potential, but legislation hasn't kept pace with developments and some colourful characters have been associated with failed projects that always seemed too detached from reality to succeed.

The late Earl J. Blanchard was feted by the authorities despite his Maputo Elephant Reserve project being ridiculed by respected environmentalists. Often, legitimate developers are sidelined by million-dollar-slinging 'cowboys'. Consequently even Mozambique's flagship NP, Gorongosa, can only offer a simple campsite with ablutions.

At Gorongosa, concessionaires are building a lodge at Bue Maria, but it's not yet finished. A fairly extensive network of roads has been re-opened but the Reserve can become inaccessible during the December to May wet season. There's a fair amount of game (a few lion and several small elephant herds) but the variety and beauty of the habitat and birds are the real attractions.

Maputo Elephant Reserve harbours around 400 elephants, which migrate between South Africa and Mozambique through rolling dune country. The birdlife is varied and abundant, but infrastructure is minimal and roads are very poor - 4x4 is essential. Camping is allowed at Ponta Milibangalala and Ponta Dobela, where there are wells, but the water needs purifying before drinking.

Remote enough to have provided refuge to around 12,000 elephant and the last of Mozambique's buffalo, sable and roan herds is Reserva do Niassa. Compania do Niassa has acquired the rights to develop this vast area. Although independent visitors are not encouraged, you can take your 4x4 on the five-day drive up to the government game-guard office at Mecula. You will be assigned a 'ranger' who must accompany you. The Jurege River, dry from June to December, provides excellent game viewing, but park and proceed on foot or the animals will be gone long before you arrive.

Although the Bazaruto Archipelago consists of five islands (in size order: Bazaruto, Benguerra, Magaruque, Santa Carolina and Bangue), only Bazaruto and surrounding reefs are officially within the National Park. These waters are home to over 80% of all marine fish families of the Indo-Pacific. Resident Minke and Southern right whales ply surrounding seas alongside common, spinner and bottlenose dolphins and the highly-threatened dugong.

The Reserve was formed in 1971 but Mozambique's independence from Portugal in 1974 interrupted development until 1989, when South Africa's Endangered Wildlife Trust, in agreement with Mozambique's government, employed ecologist Paul Dutton as warden. He initiated the Mungonzices community game-guard programme, which mediated between the conservation authorities and the island's residents to promote the sustainable use of resources.

Adjacent to Mozambique, South Africa's border areas are mostly game reserves and NPs. Border fences bisect ancient animal migratory routes (especially those of elephant and buffalo) and the extension of South African parks into Mozambique is considered an ideal way to eliminate the need for elephant culling in Kruger, cement ties between neighbours and attract tourists. These parks have been dubbed 'Peace Parks'.

The recently proclaimed Kruger-Gonarezhou-Coutada 16 Transfrontier Park (embracing South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) reflects the gulf between intention and reality. Optimists see some fences being removed this year but obstacles include incompatible land uses between Kruger (conservation) and Coutada 16 (hunting and subsistence farming), disparities in skills and funding between the three countries and the absence of attempts to counter poaching and tree felling in Mozambique.

It's uncertain whether South African Parks authorities will be able to work with a Mozambican administration with little proven commitment to protecting wildlife. The warden of the Maputo Elephant Reserve was recently caught poaching along with several government officials; the person who arrested him has been banned from entering the Reserve.

Seventeen years of civil war in Mozambique have drastically reduced the once prolific herds of wildlife in its national parks and reserves. However one area that was little affected is the Bazaruto Archipelago.

For me, the Bazaruto Archipelago evokes images of idyllic tropical beaches and a translucent blue-green sea, memories of the melancholy song of a fisherman punting his dhow in the shallows and dreams of enjoying another picnic at Benguerra Island's South Point. But there are many other reasons why the Bazaruto Archipelago is so special. For snorkellers, the Aquarium at Two Mile Reef, off Benguerra Island, is an underwaterfantasy world where brilliant yellow, powder blue and orange tropical fish and exquisite coral reefs become reality.

There is always the excitement and anticipation of seeing the endangered dugong, or the emotional experience of swimming with those gentle giants of the ocean, the whale sharks, in summer. The archipelago also offers excellent diving (especially off Bazaruto Island) and outstanding angling opportunities for black marlin, sailfish and game fish, as well as saltwater fly-fishing. And, if you're looking for peace and tranquillity, there are miles and miles of deserted beaches where you can lose yourself in your thoughts. My favourite accommodation is Benguerra Lodge on Benguerra Island for its personalised service, excellent cuisine and romantic ambience.

Bazaruto

The Endangered Wildlife Trust and the South African Nature Foundation support the Bazaruto Archipelago NP, 25km off Mozambique's mainland.

Bazaruto Island is about 40km x 5km (at its widest), edged with sandy, white, palm-lined beaches. Behind are massive sand dunes, light forest, scrubland, marshy grassland and a few freshwater lakes.

A unique and complex ecosystem. Contains about 80% (1200 species) of the Indo-Pacific marine fish families. Whales, three types of dolphin, five kinds of turtle, endangered dugongs and a host of reef fish. Big game fish include marlin, barracuda and sailfish. On land, small antelope, samango monkeys, freshwater crocodile and various rodents, lizards and snakes. Several endemic butterflies. Nearly 150 different birds, including Madagascar squacco heron, Nyasa seedcracker and Green coucal. Lesser flamingoes visit.

Most beach activities catered for, below and on water. Walking and hiking trails, dhow day trips and boat cruises round the islands. The main lodge caters for the fly-in package tourist but there are other lodges (some mid-range) and camping sites on nearby islands.

Gorongosa

Established 1921, proclaimed 1960. Once possibly the most diverse NP in Africa, its wildlife population was devastated by 1980s' hostilities. The 5300km2 park is currently being rehabilitated.

Dry plains dropping from the Gorongosa mountain range at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley. Bisected by the Midsikadzi River. Grasslands, tall miombo woodlands, Afro-montane forests, valley thickets and seasonally inundated flood plains.

Mammal populations small. All rhino gone; antelope and zebra widely dispersed and under threat from poaching. Large flocks of flamingoes and waterfowl among the 500 bird species. Many endemics and rarities to be seen. Birding enthusiasts are now benefiting from the improving road network. Currently one operator offers trips out of Beira. Those using Chitengo camp need to be self-sufficient.

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