It was a beautiful place once

And it will be again. But from 1977 to 1992, Gorongosa National Park was a war zone.

In 1975, the African country of Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal. Two years later, the country was engulfed in a civil war. The war was a human war. Yet, many animals suffered. After the war, large animals, such as elephants, buffalo, zebras and wildebeests, were noticeably lacking. Where some 2,500 elephants had freely roamed, fewer than 200 elephants remained. And those that did were scarred by war.

For Dominique Gonçalves, Gorongosa is home. She 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 believe that Gorongosa elephants are aggressive. But Gonçalves prefers to think of them as protective. They have seen their families slaughtered, and they have long memories.

These elephants were hunted for meat to feed soldiers. Their tusks were sold for ammunition. Many elephants from that time are alive today. And they don’t trust humans. How will their experiences shape their future?

Matriarch Valda stands tall. But you can clearly see the bullet hole in her right earan injury she got in the war.

All in the Family

An elephant herd is like a family. The oldest and largest female leads her daughters and their offspring. She is the matriarch.

The females help each other with the birth and care of their young. Male elephants, called bulls, form small pods in which they live and travel.

Dominique Gonçalves observes elephants in the field.

In Gorongosa, the elephants’ behavior is influenced by their fear of people developed during wartime. They behave differently from elephants elsewhere.

They stay away from open areas during daylight. If they encounter people, they fight or flee. They trumpet loudly to scare people away.

Gonçalves has seen these behaviors. She understands what they mean. “The social bonds between elephants are really complex,” she says. They form strong connections, beginning with the mother and calf. Protecting the herd is the matriach’s priority. Gonçalves learned this in the field.