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Restoring an African Park - One Elephant at a Time

The skull and crossbones sign was unmistakable: Land mines, it said. Roberto Zolho slammed on the brakes. With the practiced eyes of a park warden, he scanned the horizon. He had lost the dirt road in Gorongosa National Park and was probably driving through a minefield.

A few miles away, just outside the park boundaries, the rusty hulk of a truck lay twisted on its side, a reminder of what happens to those who drive over a land mine. Four years after the end of Mozambique's 16-year civil war, the million or so mines buried in the countryside still claim the lives and limbs of 40 to 50 people a month.

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Moments later, Mr. Zolho located the track again, a faint stripe across the grassy plain, and broke into relieved laughter as he returned to headquarters.

"It's really part of the job," Zolho says. "If we thought about mines all the time, we would never leave the camp." Zolho, the park's administrator, plans to reopen the park in November.

Before its gates slammed shut in 1983, Gorongosa was Mozambique's showpiece. Mary Parker, a Zimbabwean writer, has fond memories of her visit there before the war. "I could have leaned out of the car and picked up a lion cub," she says.

But not anymore. The park lies bare, 90 percent of its wildlife gone, its trees burned for fuel. The 3,000 elephants have dropped to fewer than 200. The 6,000 hippos have dwindled to 200.

But despite the depressing statistics, authorities say Gorongosa will revive. And as they point out, the news could have been much worse: "When we first started counting, we believed some species were extinct," says Simon Anstey of the World Conservation Union, which is helping rehabilitate the park. "It's now fairly clear nothing is extinct. There are just very few of them."

What Gorongosa lacks in wildlife it makes up in people. During the war, control of the park shifted between government troops and guerrillas. Camp followers stayed on when the war ended. Their children, who run out of the mud and thatch huts to wave at passersby, were born here. Adding to the settlers are thousands of refugees returning home after the war. They trickle daily into the park in search of food and building materials.

Persuading everyone to move out of the park will be difficult, as will finding new homes for them, but authorities know they must succeed before the settlers destroy what is left of the park.

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As Zolho passes a river bank, he looks at the desolate, deforested slopes and the eroded, barren land caused by too many human settlements. He shakes his head in dismay.

Because Zohlo suspected the villagers of poaching, he opened a ranger post in the former guerrilla headquarters on the northern boundary. But often, rangers are no match for the poachers.

"Most of the poachers are armed with AK-47 machine guns," says Zolho, while he says his guards have only antiquated revolvers to protect the animals.

While Gorongosa may be devastated, experts say it will regenerate because it's being rescued in time. A $6-million project, funded by the African Development Bank, was launched this year to rehabilitate Gorongosa and neighboring areas, which experts consider one of southern Africa's most biologically diverse regions. "I feel a lot more optimistic about it now than I did in 1993, when we first started," Mr. Anstey says.

The project is set to be completed five years from now, but the wildlife may take up to 20 years to return to previous levels. For the time being, visitors will see crumbling walls, war graffiti, and rubble, rather than scenic vistas and green hills. And the main camp will remain as is, a reminder of what war can do.

But someday the elephants and the hippos will be back, and perhaps visitors will be close enough to lean out of their cars and touch the lion cubs again.

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