In the 1960s, this park was a top tourist destination. Astronauts and movie stars vacationed here; the park boasted more lions than any other reserve of its size. There were thousands of elephants with massive tusks that measured as much as 8 feet and weighing 100 pounds. But not long after Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975, it fell into civil war. Gorongosa was at the center of the conflict, and soldiers from both sides slaughtered the animals for food and ivory.
About 300 elephants remain, almost all tuskless – a sort of natural selection by poaching. (In a normal population, 7 percent have no tusks.) Wildlife experts say the tuskless elephants can be more aggressive than their tusked counterparts. So when the South African park system offered to donate big-tusked elephants, Pereira saw it as an opportunity to diversify the local gene pool.
G5 was just what he wanted: More than 40 years old, 10-1/2 feet tall at his shoulders, ankles three feet around. The visible part of G5’s tusks measured four feet. (The part under the skin almost doubles the length.) And he was unarguably mellow – contentedly munching on thorn trees as tourists snapped photos. Young elephants learn behavior from their elders. So, park officials thought, G5 might calm resident herds.
But now, instead of symbolizing the resurgence of Gorongosa, G5 represented one of the toughest questions in conservation today: whether it is possible to manage the relationship between wild animals and the people who live in their traditional habitats, or whether animals will only survive if kept in fenced, closed parks.
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Pereira held the satellite antenna by the open helicopter door the day after he realized G5 was missing, hoping to get a signal from the elephant’s collar. Beneath him, green palms dotted scorched, black earth.