By James Byrne
The Cheringoma Plateau on the eastern side of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is a truly breathtaking place. The plateau represents the end of the eastern side of the African Rift Valley, a giant geological fault running all the way north to the Red Sea. The Cheringoma Plateau itself has been sliced open in a few places by the dull but relentless blades of time and water. In places, these gorges are 70 meters deep: dramatic depressions bursting with emergent trees and sparkling crystal pools. All that’s missing are pterodactyls gliding above the treetops and the roar of a T-Rex on the gorge floor below.
Over a dozen scientists have come here to poke around in the grass, bushes, trees and streams looking for species that are either new to science or previously un-described in Mozambique. The leader of this band of merry experts is Piotr Naskrecki, a Polish-born entomologist (insect-expert) now working at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. But Naskrecki isn’t just a scientist. He’s a world-class photographer (especially of insects and species from ‘The Smaller Majority’ as he likes to call them) and a superb science writer. For many years, he organized similar scientific trips in the middle-of-nowhere for Conservation International. This one is a little bit special, however.
“It’s the largest all-taxa survey of a complete ecosystem in Africa,” Naskrecki states. That means, there are scientists covering all the major groups of life. So, when they’re finished, they’ll have a very wide portrait of this part of Gorongosa. They’re optimistic. Other surveys in Gorongosa have yielded surprising results. “Gorongosa is a very, very bio-diverse place,” Naskrecki says. “We’re finding a lot of things we didn’t expect to find and there’s a high rate of endemism, creatures that live here and nowhere else on Earth. It’s a very special place and that’s why so many scientists were keen to come here and explore it.”
Naskrecki has hand-picked a team of Mozambican and international experts for the three-week expedition. There are experts in plant, insects, frogs and reptiles, mammals, birds and team of students and helpers. There’s even a crew from PBS, North America’s public television network, following everybody and sticking cameras on their heads. Every one of these scientists can rattle off the scientific names of thousands of obscure things with a scary command of order, genus, and species. It’s easy to feel like a lower form of intelligence around these people. (Sometimes I have to think twice about my age or what year it is.)
These people are smart but they’re also tough. If you think all scientists are delicate flowers that just sit in their ivory towers writing articles for obscure academic journals that nobody actually reads, think again. Here, they must endure Dickensian gruel for about three weeks: a corn mash that, on good days, is made slightly more palatable with some kind of mystery meat sauce. Toss in a couple hundred cans of powdered milk, sardines and tuna over 3 weeks and you get the picture. The rations and menu options are comparable to a restaurant in a post-apocalyptic world. The characters in the zombie-survivalist series “The Walking Dead” eat exactly the same stuff.
After a morning of hunting and gathering, swishing nets through tall grass or wading through pools, the scientists gather in a big, communal tent, filled with thirsty tsetse flies, to identify their treasures. Vials of drowned ants line the table and Ziploc bags full of beetles and frogs hang from the roof. The whole vaguely ghoulish scene is like the inside of a Victorian curiosity shop. It’s painstaking work. Scientists must think: it’s possible that someone in 200 years will be looking at this specimen, trying to figure out why it has no tonsils or something, so the work has to be rigorous. No sloppiness allowed. Some grad student in 2242 on Grekon-5 might curse their bad handwriting so many scientists write with an impeccable cursive script. Apart from the presence of digital cameras and ironic entomology t-shirts, this could be a scene from the early 19th Century.
Truthfully, a lot of the creatures they collect are small and not that immediately impressive to the layman fed on an African diet of elephants and lions. But once the scientist has explained what’s amazing about its anatomy or behavior, how it lures its mate or catches its prey, your respect for the little creatures increases immeasurably. There are amazing things right under our noses and often the only people that appreciate them are these experts. Nobody seems to have the time for a deep understanding of nature these days. We’d rather buy a Frog App for $1.99 from the Apple Store than actually go out, get our feet wet and catch one, stick it in a Mason jar and stare at it dreamily.
Every now and then though, something truly big and jaw dropping shows up in camp. While I was there, Harith Morgandinho Farooq, a reptile expert from the University of Lúrio, Pemba in Mozambique, strode into camp holding a huge Rock Monitor Lizard, well over a meter long, powerful and beautiful. The lizard was a scaly emissary from the gorge floor below. Doubtless, this was his first experience with humans and it’s hard to say what he thought of us. We gathered around him like an Italian family at a baptism, snapping photos, touching his whip-like tail, gasping and cooing in awe and delight. After about 5,000 photos, Harith returned him to the exact spot he found him (these lizards are very attuned to their territories) and presumably ‘the encounter with the humans’ will fade from his memory like a feverish nightmare half-forgotten by dawn.
To my surprise, the monitor lizard proved to be the warm-up act. The climax of the day came as Greg Carr, President of the Gorongosa Restoration Project and a member of the Oversight Committee of Gorongosa National Park, gamely donned a hard hat, climbing harness and rappelled off the top of the gorge and descended 70 meters to the primeval-looking gorge floor. Greg smiled in disbelief – “I’ve talked about this for a year but I didn’t think we’d do it and I certainly didn’t wake up this morning thinking I was going to do it today!”
In 2008, Greg signed a deal with the Government of Mozambique to co-manage and fund the restoration of Gorongosa. Everyone on the cliff above agreed he heartily deserved the honor of descending into the gorge. In just 5 years, Gorongosa has been transformed, one of the greatest conversation success stories in Africa, and that success is, in large part, due to Greg’s vision, energy and unwavering commitment. He spends half the year here, although his workdays are not always as thrilling.
Greg’s explorations were rewarded by a massive, seemingly unknown, cave system scooped out of the soft limestone cliffs below. It was a very special moment for Carr. “You know, I have been here for 9 years and I have never seen this place. And it could be the most beautiful place in the whole park.”
Minutes later, Jen Guyton, an American, Princeton-based, scientist looking for bats, lowered herself down after him. “As far as I know this is the first time I’ve ever been the first explorer of someplace,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting.” Once down, she unclasped herself, looked around, and called back up to her team. “It’s huge. It’s dark. There’s lot of bat guano so that’s a good sign. I’m going in…”
Her voice echoed for a while and then silence returned to the ancient gorge, like the sound in a great, deep, green well after a child has dropped a penny to the bottom.
James Byrne is from Ireland originally but moved to the U.S. in 1995. He worked at National Geographic Television for 12 years until 2012 when he left to join the Gorongosa National Park team. While he was at National Geographic, he produced a film about Gorongosa called “Africa’s Lost Eden”. As media director for Gorongosa, Byrne develops and produces long and short-form films about the park with the goals of increasing awareness, support and tourism for Gorongosa, and using the park as a model, teaches the importance of conservation and biodiversity preservation. He also works on the Gorongosa website and social media.
“I love that my work is part of a very important mission: to protect one of the most special places in the world. I love that I can produce media that will generate tourism,” Byrne writes on the Gorongosa website. “Tourism is the principle source of revenue for the park. Money spent by tourists goes directly back into conservation programs. By making films that convince tourists to come visit, I help protect the Park and give it a sustainable future. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.”