Gorongosa Day 2

Gorongosa Day 2

Gorongosa Day 2

Stephanie Hanes and Stephen Sapienza, for the Pulitzer Center
Gorongosa, Mozambique

Today we met Tendai Loja, a man cutting grass with a big machete in Gorongosa's Chitengo camp. He used to be a poacher – the boss of a group of villagers who would go into the park and snare protected animals, which they would sell at local markets. But he was arrested after some of his colleagues ratted him out, and he was sentenced to six months of manual labor in the park.

After three months, Warden Robert Zolho asked the court to release Tendai, saying the poacher seemed apologetic and was a hard worker. The court agreed to let Tendai go early, and he went home to his two wives across the Pungue River.

But a week later, he was back. Now, he told Roberto, he wanted a job in the park. He said he was through with poaching, and just wanted honest living.

Roberto talked to us about the complications of poaching, an illegal act that many locals do simply because they need food and money.

Often, he told us, the best way to prevent poaching is to give the poachers jobs. One of his best rangers, for instance, used to be among the park's most dangerous poachers.

Roberto is an interesting story himself. He was one of the first Mozambican park wardens, and was training in Gorongosa when the rebels first attacked the park during this country's long civil war.

He took us on a drive through the park. We rode past old park roads that are now closed because of landmines, and stopped at the huge flood plane that is the heart of Gorongosa's ecosystem.

Roberto said that when he first came here, this plain was covered with animals - a landscape filled with buffalo, wildebeest, elands and other antelope. Now, it is almost empty. All these animals were killed during the war, first by soldiers hunting for food, then by poaching gangs. He said that when he came back the park after the war, poachers had actually set up huts around the savanna – the easier to pick off the animals and transport their meat to market.

Roberto told us that when the government forces stormed the rebel headquarters on the edge of Gorongosa, they found 6,000 tons of ivory. (That ivory helped finance the war.) Today, the elephants in the park don't particularly like people. We ran into some of these huge animals today, but kept our distance.

More tomorrow.

Stephanie and Steve