Maputo – The helicopter races past the trees overhead in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. It whirls in circles, then suddenly charges at an unseen prey in the lush vegetation. A man hangs out of the open door, takes aim, and shoots.
Seconds later a buffalo bursts through the bushes, a pink dart in the side. The team of twenty follow on foot and with 4×4 bakkies until the beast finally collapses.
They bind its eyes and quickly lift it into a special container truck.
Another animal has been caught to be moved from the protected wildlife sanctuary to the greater expanses of Mozambique’s largest national park.
Having once sported a higher density of wild population than South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it is now getting to its feet after Mozambique’s 16-year civil war decimated its wildlife numbers.
And South African accents are heard among the group helping to repopulate the world-renowned reserve.
“We are always busy with Gorongosa,” says wild catcher Louis van Wyk while waiting in the summer heat outside an animal quarantine centre, where the newly arrived animals from outside are observed before their release into the park.
“We have a very long relationship with these guys.”
Once a professional hunter, Van Wyk turned to game catching for Wild Vets, a company based in Nelspruit which specialises in wildlife translocation in nature reserves and parks around the world.
Working during the March-October catching season, Wild Vets’ teams of catchers, veterinarians and helicopter pilots moved 120 rhinos and 300 buffalo in South Africa last year, and last April they surveyed diseases among Mozambican buffalo in Gorongosa.
“We darted 100 buffalo in three days,” Van Wyk told Sapa.
A popular holiday destination for Europeans during Portuguese colonial rule, the park was closed when civil war broke out between liberation party Frelimo and rebel movement Renamo after independence in 1975.
Wide-scale poaching by the local population and the opposing forces during the war had depleted 95% of wildlife numbers by the time Gorongosa reopened in 1992.
Ten years later the park launched an ambitious repopulation programme through the involvement of American billionaire philanthropist Greg Carr.
In 2008 Carr was granted co-management for 20 years at Gorongosa, cementing his $40m investment in its development.
Today 500 elephants walk its verdant plains, their numbers swelling at 7.5% a year since 2006, and slowly approaching their pre-war numbers of 3 000.
“We see the numbers increase. At the start you came and you would see nothing. Nothing!” quips Van Wyk about the animal populations.
“Things are starting again now. It’s thanks to the good management. They’re on the ball with these things.”
Since the project started 200 wildebeest, 180 buffalo, six elephants and six hippos have been reintroduced.
South African reserves often offer some of their animals.
“We co-operate with the Kruger Park. We get animals for free, then pay for their transport,” Pereira says at the park’s main camp, Chitengo.
A second cross-border collaboration is to tap into their neighbouring country’s skills in conservation.
“We contract people from South Africa that know what to do when it comes to capture and relocation,” explains Pereira, “It’s a very complex field.”
The catch teams still are 80% Mozambican, but “we need a helicopter and a special pilot. People that really know how to transport animals,” he says.
So a couple of times a year the Wild Vets teams make the three-day trek with their gear to catch some game in Gorongosa.
This time round, they caught 50 buffalo from another Mozambican nature reserve to replenish the gene pool of Gorongosa and a third Mozambican reserve in the northern Niassa province.
And they throw in some favours while they’re at it.
“There was a bunch of animals they wanted to move out, so we said yes,” says Van Wyk, referring to moving some buffalo from the park’s sanctuary, where 6 000 of the animals from other parks were kept until they became accustomed to their new environment.
Game catchers poaching
Then the team moved some wildebeest too. “We saw two beautiful herds, so we chased the animals in for them quickly and dropped them off on the other side.”
Both react with scepticism at the obvious question whether game catchers may be involved in rhino poaching in South Africa, where 333 of the creatures were killed in 2010 and 21 in January this year alone.
“If these companies were involved, they will lose in the short and long term,” says Pereira.
“You don’t know” if game catchers are involved, says Van Wyk. “If there are, you’ll obviously expose them.”
And he thinks more than one syndicate is involved in the crime.
“Behind all of this there must be people driving the demand.”