When you are in the Chimanimani Mountains, it is difficult to reconcile your present serenity with your troubled past. Huge walls of gray stone rise from the valleys above dense deciduous forests. Old rock paintings, which were made by the people of the San in the late Stone Age and are also known as Bushmen, are hidden under various crevices. They show dancing men and women and hunting parties chasing elephants. There’s even a painting of a crocodile that’s so huge it can keep you off the river bank forever.
As you climb higher towards Mount Binga, Mozambique’s highest peak, the forests flatten into expanses of montane grasslands. Wild, isolated, lost in time, it’s a place where rich local traditions live on, where people still talk about ancestral spirits and sacred rituals. A local guide once told me about a sacred mountain, Nhamabombe, where rainmakers still make rain.
It is not every day that a country with a past full of war and environmental degradation reaches an ambitious conservation goal. But that is exactly what happened in Mozambique last year when the country officially designated Chimanimani as a new national park after revising its environmental law.
Mozambique has seen its share of heartbreak, and Chimanimani is no exception. After gaining independence from Portuguese colonial rulers in 1975, the country was plunged into civil war. Up to a million Mozambicans died. So also countless wild animals that were hunted for their meat or whose parts were exchanged for weapons.
The Chimanimani Mountains became a front line, and their mountain passes became transit routes for guerrilla soldiers during both the Rhodesian Bush War, which lasted from 1964 to 1979, and the Mozambican Civil War, which ran from 1977 to 1992.
Chimanimani National Park is located on the Zimbabwean border, about 90 miles southwest of Gorongosa, Mozambique’s most famous national park. It marks the latest triumph in an environmental renaissance for a country where armies financed wars with the blood of poached wild animals 30 years ago.
Across the country, Mozambique’s national park authority, the National Administration of Conservation Areas, is working with private partners to increase the number of wildlife and restore the functioning of the ecosystem. The most famous projects are in the Gorongosa National Park.
In part because of the country’s history of conflict, Mozambique’s biodiversity has been poorly studied and biological expeditions have been sparse. As a result, a first step was to conduct two biodiversity surveys in Chimanimani, carried out by Dr. Piotr Naskrecki, director of EO Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory in Gorongosa, and funded by BIOFUND, a non-profit nature conservation organization, and Fauna & Flora International international conservation organization. Scientists from seven countries took part in the expeditions, including several from Mozambique.
As a PhD student who completed my field research in Gorongosa, I took part in the annual biodiversity surveys as a mammal expert. After completing my PhD in 2018, I switched to a career in photojournalism. I carried out my last two biodiversity surveys in 2018 and 2019 – first in the buffer zone of Chimanimani, then in the heart of Chimanimani – as a photographer.
These surveys are like biological treasure hunts. Scientists with different specialties are released into the landscape in order to discover as many species as possible.
Mammal researchers set up camera traps for large mammals such as antelopes, live traps for small mammals such as rodents, and fog nets for bats. The ornithologists mainly arm themselves with binoculars, their ears and an amazing memory of bird songs. During the day entomologists sweep their butterfly nets in the grasslands and at night often stand by a light surrounded by clouds of insects, take them out of their hair and wait for something interesting to land.
The herpetologists or reptile and amphibious specialists shoot rubber bands to temporarily stun lizards, dive for agile frogs in knee-high water, and generally avoid being bitten by poisonous snakes when they are far from medical care.
In contrast, the botanists have a quiet task: there is something relaxing and almost elegant to stroll over the mountainside, inspecting beautiful flowers and putting some on paper for posterity.
Biodiversity surveys are not for the faint of heart and cast more than a little doubt on the idea that scientists are all boring nerds in lab coats.
Over the years I have been bitten by a tarantula, several bats, a mouse, countless insects and even a (non-poisonous) snake. Once, according to a survey in New Jersey, a doctor flushed my ears when I complained of muffled hearing. Dozens of tiny insects of various shapes and sizes buried in wax were poured out. (Precisely for this reason, the experts often wear plugs in their ears when they are near the insect light.)
There’s something about this variety that I’ve always found extremely appealing. On the cool morning hours in Chimanimani, the scientists, who didn’t have to get up before sunrise to hunt their species, sat drinking instant coffee from plastic cups and watched the clouds cast shadows on the huge rock dome.
Chimanimani is a bird watcher’s paradise and features a wide variety of rare and endemic bird species. In Rio Nyahedzi, a camp about 400 meters above sea level, the ornithologists in the survey found the bokmakierie, a bird that was last seen in Mozambique in the 1970s. (Nyahedzi is near Mount Binga, which is right on the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe.)
If the park gets more attention, it will also attract hikers and climbers. Some of the park’s most beautiful waterfalls are 15 miles from the nearest road. You can wander for days without seeing another human. The park vibrates with loneliness, adventure and discovery.
At the end of the two investigations, scientists had found more than 1,400 species in Chimanimani: 475 plants, 43 mammals, 260 birds, 67 amphibians and reptiles and at least 582 species of insects. Some are new to science.
“As a quick poll, it was amazingly productive,” said Rob Harris of Fauna & Flora International’s Mozambique Program, saying the discoveries came in a relatively short time.
The incredible diversity uncovered by the surveys is only part of what is known. In total, almost 1,000 plant species are known in the Chimanimani Mountains alone. 76 species of flora and fauna are endemic to the Chimanimani Mountains, which means that they do not exist anywhere else on earth.
Like all wild places, Chimanimani’s future is far from certain. Endemic species are particularly threatened by climate change; Due to their limited range, they have no other place to go as the conditions become unsuitable. And population growth will continue to threaten the outskirts of the park. “The deforestation outside the park and in the buffer zone has been alarming,” said Zak Pohlen, an ornithologist.
But when I think about these polls and my time in Mozambique, I can’t help but feel hopeful. I am inspired every day by the passion of young Mozambican conservationists to protect their country’s disappearing wilderness. And most of all, I am inspired by their optimism.
One of the goals of these surveys is to train young Mozambicans to take leadership roles in conservation. Ana Gledis da Conceição, a Mozambican mammal researcher, has supported me for several years with the measurement of mammals. Until 2019 she led the mammal team together with Mnqobi Mamba, a master’s student at the University of Eswatini.
Ms. da Conceição says she is exactly where she should be – a young scientist who is fighting for the preservation of biological diversity. “I would like to invite young people like me to embrace this cause for the good of all of us,” she said.
“Despite everything,” she added, “Mozambique has a lot to contribute to the future of nature conservation.”