Robert M. Pringle, Assistant Professor, Princeton University, Probes the Secrets of Gorongosa National Park
Each year, thousands of travellers visit Africa to see its spectacular wildlife. These are the large herbivorous mammals familiar from our children’s books and television programs – elephants, hippos, various species of antelope. Seeing these animals in the wild is an unforgettable experience. But beyond being beautiful, are they important? What role do they play in the workings of African savanna ecosystems? And what would be the consequences of losing them?
These are among the questions that we are trying to answer in my lab at Princeton University. For the past decade, my experimental work on these issues has focused on the Laikipia Highlands of central Kenya. Recently, however, we have begun to work in an exciting new study system in Mozambique: Gorongosa National Park.
Gorongosa promises to reveal many secrets about the inner workings of African savannas, insights that would not be possible anywhere else. There are two main reasons for this. One is an accident of the park’s tragic history. Gorongosa’s lush grasslands and woodlands once supported enormous herds of wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo. In the 1980s, these species – typical of other famous safari destinations like the Serengeti, Masai Mara, and Kruger National Park – were pushed to the brink of extinction by civil war. From the ashes of that conflict, a new Gorongosa arose, no less spectacular, but strikingly different from anything found elsewhere on the continent. Indeed, a visitor to Gorongosa today will see species that are scarce in Africa’s more touristy destinations: stately sable antelope, diminutive oribi, and shy nyala are all thriving in the reborn national park. Yet he or she would be lucky to spot a wildebeest or a zebra, the species that dominate so many protected areas in eastern and southern Africa. Such massive ecological perturbations provide the raw material for discovery – they allow us to ask what happens to vegetation when the primary herbivores crash and are supplanted by different species, and whether existing theories accurately predict how ecosystems reassemble themselves following an extinction-level event.
The other reason why Gorongosa is emerging as the continent’s most promising scientific destination is anything but an accident. In a forward-thinking move, Gorongosa’s administration decided to make research an integral part of the park’s mission and management strategy – that scientific inquiry should be actively facilitated, rather than barely tolerated (as is the case in many other national parks worldwide). Gorongosa’s caretakers believe that research, conservation, tourism, community outreach, and media production are interwoven objectives, and that each one can (and should) enhance all of the others. Accompanying a scientist on a research expedition can add a new dimension to the conventional safari experience, while tour operators can hasten the pace of discovery by contributing much-needed funds to research efforts. Likewise, conservation is most effective when informed by science, yet without effective conservation, scientists would have nothing to study.
Gorongosa National Park is many things. It is an abundance of beauty and a reservoir of inspiration and rejuvenation. It is a treasure for humankind, a source of pride for Mozambique, and a source of livelihood for many Mozambicans. It is a testament to the ability of passionate people to change the world. And it is a living laboratory that can help us understand how nature works and how best to preserve it in perpetuity. In the course of my blog posts, I will introduce you to some of the scientists working on the ground and let you in on what we discover along the way. We hope to see you there!