And it will be again. But from 1977 to 1992, Gorongosa National Park was a war zone.
Two years after the African country of Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, the country was engulfed in a civil war. The war was a human war. But many animals suffered. This place that had teemed with life was now noticeably lacking in large animals, such as elephants, buffalo, zebras, and wildebeests. Where some 2,500 elephants had freely roamed, fewer than 200 elephants remained. And those that did were physically and emotionally scarred by war.
Mozambique is Dominique Gonçalves’ country. Gorongosa is her home. She, more than many, understands what the elephants suffered. She is a National Geographic Explorer and the manager of the Elephant Ecology Project.
Gorongosa National Park
Elephants are known for their social bonds, intelligence, and memory.
"Animal behaviorists say that Gorongosa elephants have a culture of aggression,” says Gonçalves. “Although this is true, I prefer to think of it as a culture of protection. They have seen their families slaughtered. They don’t trust humans. They don’t trust vehicles.”
And really, why would they? At the height of the war, elephants were hunted for meat to feed soldiers. Their tusks were sold for guns and ammunition. Elephants became an instrument of war. Yet, these animals can live long lives, and they have long memories. Many elephants from that time are still alive today, and they remember. They were changed by war, and Gorongosa’s elephants are shaped by that legacy. As the park makes its recovery, elephants are beginning to thrive again. How will their experiences shape their future?
Matriarch Valda stands tall. But you can clearly see the bullet hole in her right ear—an injury she got in the war.
All in the Family
An elephant herd is like a large family. It’s made up of the oldest and largest female who leads her daughters and their offspring. She is the matriarch.
The females of the herd help each other with the birth and care of their young. A herd can have as many as 50 elephants in it. Male elephants, called bulls, form small, all-male pods in which they live and travel.
Dominique Gonçalves observes elephants in the field.
In Gorongosa, the elephants’ behavior is strongly influenced by their fear of people, which was created during wartime. So, they behave differently from elephants elsewhere. They stay away from open areas during daylight. They tend not to visit places where they feel vulnerable. If they encounter people, they fight or flee. Often, a matriarch will lead others to charge and chase vehicles. They trumpet loudly to scare people away.
Gonçalves has seen all of these behaviors, and she understands what they mean. “The social bonds between elephants are really complex,” she says. Like humans, elephants are capable of forming strong connections with their friends and family members. These relationships start between mother and calf and radiate out. Protecting the herd and keeping all members safe is the matriarch’s priority. Gonçalves learned this firsthand in the field.