A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk Through Gorongosa National Park

  • Edward O. Wilson
  • Simon and Schuster
  • 176 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ian Tattersall
  • April 24, 2014

An eminent biologist describes the recovery of a major ecosystem in Mozambique after years of devastating loss and civil unrest.

From 1977 until 1992, civil war devastated Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony sandwiched between South Africa and Tanzania on Africa’s eastern coast. Even after the civil war ended, the exhausted country, scarred and drained by the conflict, continued to disintegrate economically. The casualties of the war and its dismal aftermath included not only a million human lives, but also one of the world’s best-preserved marvels of nature: Gorongosa National Park

Prior to the civil war, Gorongosa National Park, located at the foot of the 6,000-foot Mount Gorongosa, was one of Africa’s most pristine environments: An estimated 6,000 elephants, several hundred lions, and untold thousands of grazing mammals such as the shy and rare nyala roamed its 4,000 square kilometers of acacia stands, miombo forest, bush-dotted savanna, dry brush, and seasonally flooded pans, and an astonishing 500 species of birds flew overhead and perched in the thickets.

Caught in the middle of civil war after Mozambique’s independence in 1975, Gorongosa National Park’s situation became desperate. In 1983, the park was a frequent battlefield and its protectors abandoned the area to poachers, starving locals, and marauding soldiery. By 2004, the impact of war reduced Gorongosa’s teeming population of large mammals by as much as 95 percent: 13,000 buffalo were cut to a mere 15, and the number of wildebeest fell from 6,400 to just one. No rhino, hyenas, or wild dogs remained.

Africa has known its share of disasters, but few other megafaunal ecosystems, in Africa or anywhere else, have disintegrated as thoroughly and quickly as Gorongosa’s did in those dreadful years.

Edward O. Wilson’s new book, A Window on Eternity, celebrates Gorongosa’s recovery from this near-death experience after a 2004 agreement between the Mozambique government and America’s Carr Foundation. Celebration is the appropriate word, for in a mere decade wonders have been achieved. By judicious reintroduction of decimated mammal species, active involvement of the local people, and laborious restoration of the environment — literally millions of trees were planted on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa to reestablish the forest protecting the water-supply to the fragile valley below — the National Park has begun to take on a semblance of its former self. 

There is still a very long way to go, but mammal populations have rebounded. Slow-reproducing elephants have increased 15 percent from their largest previously recorded number, while the more fecund waterbucks have reached, or surpassed, their old level. Even though most of the surviving mammal species remain below half their prewar populations, the trend is positive, and Wilson’s account brims with confidence.

The ongoing recovery of Gorongosa is merely a jumping-off point for Wilson’s brief book. Beautifully illustrated with photographs by his colleague Piotr Naskrecki, A Window on Eternity contrives to be a simultaneously compressed and lyrical account of how the complex Gorongosa ecosystem works at every level, all the way from the abounding life in a single pile of elephant dung to the role in the ecosystem of the huge mammal that produced it. Wilson ruminates on how crocodiles function in the complex aquatic web of the valley bottom, how spiders elicit phobias in people, and how ants — his specialty — partition their habitats. Every creature, however large or tiny, has its own part to perform in the complex play of life. Wilson makes readers realize, viscerally, how an ecosystem encompasses so much more than the large animals and plants seen from a safari vehicle.

Wilson makes the experience of Gorongosa even more immediate by including a short, diary-style account of an expedition to study and classify the ants of the National Park. While ants may have been the intended focus of this particular outing, they form only a tiny proportion of the diary entries because the rest of the ecosystem — from lions to snakes to katydids — constantly distract Wilson and elicit diverse ruminations from him.

First-time visitors to Africa often experience a strange sensation of familiarity when traveling through its wild regions. Wilson suggests this experience occurs because Africa, the continent on which our ancestors evolved, lives in every one of us. The fragile patchwork of Gorongosa’s local environments closely resembles the one in which our earliest bipedal ancestors took their first hesitant steps. And places like this haunting and irreplaceable patch of central Mozambique, eternally at risk from human interference, paradoxically evoke in us the kind of primeval vulnerability our ancient precursors must have felt.

Ian Tattersall is a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He is most recently the author of Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins.


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