When you stand in the Chimanimani Mountains, it’s difficult to reconcile their present serenity with their beleaguered past. From the valleys below, enormous walls of gray stone rise above dense deciduous forests. Hidden among various crevices are ancient rock paintings, made in the late Stone Age by the San people, also known as Bushmen; they depict dancing men and women, and hunting parties chasing after elephants. There’s even a painting of a crocodile so enormous that it may forever deter you from the riverbank.
As you climb higher, toward 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 there once told me about a sacred mountain, Nhamabombe, where rainmakers still go to make rain.
Gorongosa, Mozambique’s most famous national park, Chimanimani National Park marks the latest triumph in an environmental renaissance for a country where, just 30 years ago, armies were still funding wars with the blood of poached wildlife.
BIOFUND, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation, and Fauna & Flora International, an international wildlife conservation organization. The expeditions involved scientists from seven countries, including several from Mozambique.
The mammalogists set camera traps for large mammals like antelope, live traps for small mammals like rodents, and mist nets for bats. The ornithologists arm themselves primarily with binoculars, their ears and an astonishing memory for bird songs. By day, the entomologists sweep their butterfly nets in the grassland and, by night, often stand at a light surrounded by clouds of insects, picking them out of their hair and waiting for something interesting to land.
The herpetologists, or reptile and amphibian specialists, shoot rubber bands to temporarily stun lizards, dive into knee-high water after agile frogs, and generally avoid being bitten by venomous snakes while far away from medical care.
By contrast, the botanists have a tranquil task: there’s something relaxing and almost elegant about strolling across the mountainside, inspecting beautiful flowers and pressing some in paper for posterity.
Through the years, I myself have been bitten by a tarantula, several bats, a mouse, countless insects and even a (nonvenomous) snake. Once, back in New Jersey after a survey, a doctor flushed my ears when I complained of muffled hearing. Out poured dozens of tiny, wax-entombed insects in various shapes and sizes. (The experts often wear plugs in their ears while standing at the insect light for this exact reason.)
Featuring a diverse set of rare and endemic avian species, Chimanimani is a bird-watcher’s paradise. At Rio Nyahedzi, a camp some 4,000 feet above sea level, the survey’s ornithologists found the bokmakierie, a bird that was last seen in Mozambique in the 1970s. (Nyahedzi is close to Mount Binga, which lies directly on the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe.)
At the end of the two surveys, scientists in Chimanimani 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 amazingly productive as a rapid survey,” said Rob Harris, of Fauna & Flora International’s Mozambique program, emphasizing that the discoveries took place in a relatively short period of time.
Like all wild places, Chimanimani’s future is anything but certain. Endemic species are particularly threatened by climate change; because of their restricted range, they don’t have anywhere else to go as conditions become unsuitable. And human population growth will continue to jeopardize the fringes of the park. “The deforestation outside the park and in the buffer zone was alarming,” said Zak Pohlen, an ornithologist.
But as I reflect on these surveys and my time in Mozambique, I can’t help but feel full of hope. I am inspired every day by the passion of young Mozambican conservationists to safeguard their country’s disappearing wilderness. And most of all, I’m inspired by their optimism.
One of the goals of these surveys is to train young Mozambicans to take over leadership roles in conservation. Ana Gledis da Conceição, a Mozambican mammalogist, for example, spent several years assisting me in surveying mammals; by 2019, she was co-leading the mammal team with Mnqobi Mamba, a master’s student at the University of Eswatini.
Ms. da Conceição says she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be — a young scientist who fights for the conservation of biodiversity. “I want to invite young people like me to embrace this cause for the good of all of us,” she said.
“In spite of everything,” she added, “Mozambique has much to contribute to the future of conservation.”