Out for a walkabout at daybreak, Steve Burns arrived at breakfast with a big grin on his face. “I’ve already seen three of the animals we’re going to have in the exhibit,” he says, just on a walk around his cabin: Warthogs, vervet monkeys, olive baboons. Zoo Boise’s next exhibit will include a dozen animals that are found in Gorongosa National Park.
Meanwhile, Heidi Ware, a nearly graduated master's degree student at Boise State and the education and outreach coordinator at the Intermountain Bird Observatory in Boise, was also out before breakfast. She has a keen eye for birds and found “18 species I could identify and a gazillion more that I couldn’t,” she says.
I’m suspecting this will be a recurring theme: the sheer immensity of numbers — coupled with our own excitement at seeing new animals.
Wednesday morning, we got an overview of the park and what we will see in the coming days. We flew in a helicopter over the verdant plain of Lake Urema — which in the wet season will be four times the size of what we saw today, the middle of the dry season. We saw only a tiny part of the park, but in our 30 minute flight, we saw our own gazillion animals — some of which we now know by name and some of which we have yet to learn.
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Waterbucks by the hundreds grazed in twos and threes and herds along the rivulets and grasses. Over the Vinduzi River, we spotted pods of hippos swimming in the muddy water, and giant Nile crocodiles — add another one to the list of Zoo Boise’s future animals — basking on the edges. It was hard to talk in the helicopter, but that was okay; we were too busy looking, photographing and grinning in amazement.
The sound of the helicopter caused thousands of pelicans to take wing and we flew over them, with them. We saw grey herons, little egrets, three kinds of ibis, white-face whistling ducks, Egyptian geese.
We flew over two groups of elephants roaming in the trees. Elephants! With babies! During the war, elephant number were decimated, from 2,200 to 108. Now their numbers are back up to 300, thanks to protection and reintroduction — in 2009, Zoo Boise raised $10,000 to help purchase elephants from Kruger National Park in South Africa.
And then: Part of our group came back with even bigger grins of wonder. They not only spotted two lions, but one of them took down an oribi — a small antelope — in the moments that they watched. Welcome to Africa.
We were all impressed when the lion researchers set out to find these two lions —one who had a limp and both of whom seemed to be uncollared. “If there are two new males, that’s a nice thing to put on the map,” said lion researcher Paola Bouley, senior researcher on the Gorongosa Lion Project.
In the last several years, Zoo Boise has given $105,000 to several projects in Gorongosa. One of those has been the lion research, and yet to come is the days ahead is accompanying Paolo to collect camera traps, were enabled by Zoo Boise.
Conservation money from Zoo Boise visitors also contributed to the E.O. Wilson Laboratory, which was dedicated in just in March. The group got to meet researchers — including Ryan Long, who will be teaching at University of Idaho — and two Mozambican who gave us a tour of the plant and insect specimens over which they preside.
“As a Mozambican, to be working in the lab is the dream of everybody,” said Tongai Castigo.
“Behind the scenes makes a national park come alive,” said Marc Stalmans, director of scientific services. “Hopefully you will become stronger ambassadors for the great contributions (Gorongosa is making) to Mozambique and the great contributions to wildlife conservation.”