Researching One of Nature’s Comeback Stories

A view of the floodplain of Lake Urema in Mozambique. The water from Mount Gorongosa flows here. All photos by Neal Leavitt

Last April, Neal Leavitt was on a research trip deep in the forests of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique when the open-air vehicle he was riding in came to a stop before a trio of elephants. Three pairs of brown, soulful eyes stared at him and his guide. One of the elephants wrapped its trunk around a branch, ripped it from the tree, and casually munched on its leaves. Another moved closer to the vehicle, lifting its trunk as if to smell or taste the air.

Leavitt was awestruck.

“They looked curious. They didn’t give off any signs of anger. It was more like, ‘Why are you here? What are you doing?’ It was really amazing.”

Leavitt, a master lecturer in humanities whose research focuses on political and ethical philosophy, traveled to Gorongosa to explore its conservation efforts. The park is known as a success story, having rebounded from a severe loss of its animal population following decades of civil war between the 1970s and 1990s and a period of unrest from 2013 until 2019, when a peace treaty was signed. The elephant population, for example, dropped from around 2,300 in the 1960s to around 100 by the end of the civil war, Leavitt says. The losses made his encounter with the elephants all the more magical.

His park ranger guide explained that the elephants they saw were likely young males. “He said the female elephants in Gorongosa have a memory of the civil war and are very skittish and protective of their young ones. The chances of getting close to them are nil.”

Leavitt envisions publishing a book that brings together his interests in philosophy and conservation and compares how Gorongosa and national parks in Bhutan and Nepal approach conservation.

Collegian spoke with Leavitt about his research interests and what he discovered during his time in Gorongosa.

One of the elephants Neal Leavitt encountered during his research trip to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

Collegian: How does this research project fit in with your research interests and background in philosophy?

Leavitt: The last book I wrote [Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen, and the Early Indian Classical Period: The Obligations of Power (Lexington Books, 2022)] dealt with a concept called the obligations of power. In this concept, individuals in positions of power have an obligation to promote the growth and development of other people and other living things when it’s feasible to do so. I explored this in relation to the Indian philosophers Tagore and Sen, and how they drew on Buddha, who, in their view, was one of the first thinkers to come up with the idea.

What I want to do now is fill out the idea of the obligations of power in the relation between persons and animals through the notion of conservation and rewilding. So, how can individuals use their powers to promote the growth and development of other living things?

Neal Leavitt, a master lecturer in humanities whose research focuses on political and ethical philosophy, traveled to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique to explore its conservation efforts. Here, he is pictured standing near Mount Gorongosa’s Murombodzi Falls. Photo courtesy of Neal Leavitt

Can you explain what you mean by “rewilding?”

Rewilding is a concept used by the late biologist E. O. Wilson. He was my teacher a long time ago. Basically, the idea is that human beings can, through their decisions, give priority to more wilderness, to having more of the Earth be like its state prior to human involvement. With his Half-Earth Project, Wilson’s claim was that we can conserve, or rewild, up to 50 percent of the surface of the Earth if we make it a priority.

This idea involves a pretty radical expansion of the national park system. Conservation isn’t one monolithic thing. There are different levels. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is an organization that is devoted to picking out what is the most appropriate form of conservation in different diversity hotspots. In some areas, the diversity is considered to be so important, so unique, so large, that almost no human activity is recommended to be permitted—just for research, basically. In the continuum, the most extreme form of rewilding would be to create more places like that. But there’s a whole set of in-betweens, where it’s not a fully urbanized area where every square inch has been redesigned by people—the other extreme. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project is a form of the obligations of power. That’s a point I want to try to make.

Was this your first visit to Gorongosa?

Yes, I had never been to Africa before this.

Leavitt took this photo from the open-air vehicle he was traveling in on the way to see coffee trees that have been planted on the west side of the Gorongosa massif. Castro Morais, the park ranger driving the vehicle, grew up in Vila de Gorongosa on the border of the park and is one of the people Leavitt interviewed.

How did war impact Gorongosa?

The megafauna in Gorongosa was almost entirely killed off during the civil war that happened in the country after it became independent from Portugal. Between the late ’70s and late ’90s, RENAMO [the Mozambican National Resistance] was one of the groups fighting in the civil war and they put their headquarters in Gorongosa. The animal population was decimated. That has happened in other national parks in Africa.

Such as?

In the Kissama National Park in Angola, which is another place I’m interested in, there was a kind of proxy conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, with each side arming the other in a civil war. That was roughly the same time [as the conflict in Mozambique], and it was terrible for the people involved and bad for biodiversity, conservation, and the national park system in Angola. Six national parks existed prior to the civil war, and the Kissama National Park is the only one left.

One of the elephants Leavitt and his guide encountered was likely using his trunk to smell or taste their scent.

Gorongosa is interesting to me because it shows rewilding after this period of political upheaval in Mozambique. There’s been a successful effort to reintroduce a number of species to the park. It’s a very tricky thing because you don’t want to introduce invasive species into your park, you don’t want to introduce species that might overwhelm the genetic diversity of existing species on the ground. But you don’t want existing species to become extinct in that area either. It’s an interesting balancing act. It seems to be working in Gorongosa. The elephant population has now reached more than 1,000, for instance.

That’s wonderful. What were your goals for your visit to Gorongosa?

I had two main goals for the trip. One was to speak with a number of people from the national park. I talked with Marc Stalmans, an ecologist [and director of scientific services at Gorongosa]…about how to run a national park. One of the main things that he’s trying to accomplish is to do scientific research that can provide information about what’s happening in the park and then use that information so that better decisions can be made about how to use park resources.

One of the things that I was interested in was the potential to expand the national park further out to the coastline. He said they decided not to because the area that they would have wanted to expand into seemed to be okay—the ecological surveys and biodiversity surveys indicated that it was a pretty intact ecosystem, whereas the area [more closely bordering] Gorongosa National Park as it is has had lots of problems. So, they decided to instead invest in the park borders.

Not expanding was a key decision that the national park had to make. It was based on understanding what ecosystems were really in danger and how to best use park resources. I could tell it was not the easiest decision for them. That was a large part of the trip, just trying to understand problems facing the national park from the point of view of people who work there.

And your second goal?

A vervet monkey Leavitt spotted.

A second part of the trip was to get images for a potential future book, in which I can discuss a lot of the things I talked about with the people at the national park but also give a visual impression of the biodiversity and abundance and why people care about conservation in the first place. I could definitely spend more time there, and there are more species to see, but I feel very lucky that I got the photos that I did.

The larger project also involves comparing Gorongosa National Park with national parks in Bhutan and Nepal. Bhutan has a very large percentage of its land conserved as a national park. There are different estimates of it—40 to 50 percent. But it’s a different situation because a good chunk of that is the high Himalaya and almost no one lives there. I’m not going to explore that as in depth, but I am interested in seeing how they are approaching conservation and comparing that.

Who else did you speak with at Gorongosa?

I interviewed Pedro Muagura, the warden of Gorongosa. His perspective was very interesting because he had grown up as a boy in the last stages of Portuguese colonialism. He said that the Portuguese forbid the teaching of the Sena language [the Sena people are an ethnolinguistic group in Mozambique] in schools and that the Sena cultural traditions were suppressed. He said because of that, there was a kind of cultural memory loss.

Still, he talked about how his family had a totem animal, the wild dog. The story behind that he gave was that one day, his ancestors were hunting, and they were about to be ambushed by lions. But the wild dogs saved them somehow. Because of that, everyone who came after those ancestors owed their existence to this animal, and the family sort of adopted this animal. What that meant is they were restricted from killing wild dogs and they had to protect them. Pedro told me that Sena families all had a totem animal that they owe their existence to.

I talked to another park employee, Larissa Sousa, and she said that her family’s totem animal was a zebra. There are lion clans, elephant clans, there was a pangolin clan. I think you can say that in itself is a system of conservation because no one family can claim complete control over all the resources in the park. Each one has a species that it is responsible for protecting.

Pairs of saddle-billed storks and tufted grey cranes Leavitt saw south of the Lake Urema floodplain.

What else about Gorongosa’s conservation and sustainability efforts struck you? 

On one of my days there, our park ranger guide took me up the western side of Mount Gorongosa to visit this coffee project they have. The national park program has tried to create more sustainable forms of agriculture. There is a coffee farm on the mountain. Mount Gorongosa is a big massif [a large mountain mass], and it catches moist air that comes in from the ocean. It rains a lot out there.

That’s the key to the whole ecosystem, because the water is captured in forests in the massif region and then it’s released into the southern part of the rift valley. It’s released over the course of a year, so that there’s a constant source of water for all of these large animals to use. If you didn’t have trees on the mountain, the water would be released much more quickly—you would have more flooding, and you would have a longer dry period with no water. So, getting people to avoid cutting down forests in the massif is key to the long-term survival of the park.

I think the coffee project is a brilliant idea. There’s basically a global market for coffee; the national park is giving trees away so that families can plant coffee trees, raise them, and then sell coffee for 8 to 10 times more than what they would get with subsistence farming crops. And coffee trees can grow in the shade. You can plant other types of trees that will grow much taller, and the coffee trees will still do okay. The whole park depends on the success of that project. It’s pretty striking.

Leavitt was fortunate to spot a jackal, one of the rarest animals in Gorongosa National Park.

How long has that project been going?

The massif was incorporated into Gorongosa National Park in 2010. I think that the coffee project started a couple years later. It’s complicated by the civil conflict that was only adjudicated in 2019—they finally signed a peace agreement. I would say that it’s really gotten off the ground since then. The trees that I saw are maybe five years old.

The FRELIMO [Mozambique Liberation Front] and RENAMO parties have had a long history of conflict but have said they’re going to be peaceful. I would say that a lot depends on how the next election goes for this peace treaty. That’s in 2024. And in speaking with my guide, Castro Morais, and others, they were a little apprehensive about how the election would turn out. But if that election is viewed as free and fair and the peace agreement lasts, then Gorongosa National Park will have more time. And Dr. Stalmans told me that’s a key thing. The human development projects that the park is pursuing take time.