A raucous group of 24 kids played a game of “batata quente,” which would be “hot potato,” easy enough to figure out without speaking Portuguese. The one left with the ball — when the teacher stopped singing — laughed with the guilt of being caught red-handed and scooted out of the circle.
This is the environmental camp at the Community Education Center, about a half-hour drive from Chitengo Camp, in the buffer zone around Gorongosa National Park. In this four-day camp, kids learn about the interconnectedness of nature and humans, sustainability and respect for the land and animals. Along with, of course, playing fun kids’ games.
“(Kids), they are the future of the planet,” says Herculano Ernesto, program manager of environmental education. “So when we involve the kids for conservation, we are assuring in the future.”
Zoo Boise visitors voted last year to give $50,000 to support enviro-clubs and gardens in schools surrounding the park. And here we were.
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The 24 kids, ages 8-16, were chosen as the best and brightest from the Clube Ambiental de Nhambita — the Enviro-Club of Nhambita school. The expectation is that they’ll return to their school and be ambassadors with their learning about the environment.
The highlight of the camp? It will be the safari game drive into the park to see the animals.
“Kids from rural areas do not see wildlife,” says Vasco Galante, Gorongosa's director of communications, noting that the animals outside the park have long been gone. “They know the stories; their parents have told them, but they have never seen them.”
Director Herculano was one of those kids. He grew up in Beira (a coastal port town in Mozambique) and his father drove tourists on safari in Gorongosa when he was very young. Herculano never saw big game until he came to work on the Gorongosa Restoration Project.
“I can’t describe this moment. It was huge. Too much impression,” he said, remembering his first safari. “In the city, even in my agricultural course, we deal with animals — but domestic animals, cattle, chickens, things like that. But wildlife was first time in modern days.”
Shortly down the road, we passed through the electric fence into the wildlife sanctuary — 15,000 acres fenced off within the park. Our guides lowered their voices to a whisper and we silently crept, one at a time, up a handmade ladder. In the observation tower, we carefully and slowly pushed aside the covering to peek down to see Gorongosa National Park’s newest residents: eight zebras.
Zoo Boise patrons voted to give $50,000 in conservation fees to relocate zebras from another park in Africa. It’s a very specific zebra — called Crawshay’s zebra — and it took a while to get them. But seven were relocated last year and these eight that we were peeking at were delivered in July. Still skittish at their new surroundings, they will be in quarantine for about 40 days before being released into a 150-acre area within the sanctuary.
Pre-war, Gorongosa had about 3,000 zebras and afterward — five. Zoo Boise has purchased 15 and the goal is 100 to make a viable herd.
These zebras are breathtakingly striking. Different from the ones in Zoo Boise, they have thinner and denser black stripes, which go all the way around their underbellies and all the way down to their hooves. They took one’s breath away.
Bu after our safari adventures of the past days, though, peering at them in the pen through a slit in a shade was somehow, well, just a little anti-climatic.
So we drove around the sanctuary. Wildebeest (cool). Cape buffalo (amazing). Vervet monkeys (cute). And there they were. Zebras, in the wild.
Just like Herculano described: “I had the fortune to go to the zoo in Maputo, but is not same. But here, the animals are in free life. That is too much difference.”