Lions, buffalos, elephants, rhinos and leopards - the "big five" as they are known in conservation circles - could once again prosper on the game parks of Mozambique if a major research contract awarded to the University of Northumbria and a partner is successful.
The university and an international organisation of development consultants called ETC UK have just won a Pounds 1.3 million research contract to resuscitate the Gorongosa Game Park in central Mozambique. The African Development Bank, which is funding the project, wants to rehabilitate the area, reversing the damage caused by years of civil war that devastated the park, destroying wildlife, forestry and people's livelihoods.
ETC UK, part of the Amsterdam-based ETC Foundation which also has offices in Africa, Asia and Latin America, is based in Newcastle, and specialises in environmental management.
Philip O'Keefe, director of ETC UK, is a senior lecturer in the division of geography and environmental management at Northumbria.
He describes the relationship between ETC UK and the university as an "informal" one. Members of ETC UK's staff will work closely on the Mozambique project with researchers from the university. Dr O'Keefe said: "Such a large research contract will have a direct impact on undergraduate teaching programmes and allow some undergraduates hands-on experience in the African bush."
A multinational team will spend three years working in Gorongosa. It will be led by Paulo Zicula, former minister of agriculture in Mozambique and an expert in rural development. ETC UK will provide agroforestry and training expertise and Zimbabwe's Campfire programme will provide wildlife biologists. The programme has developed strategies for the use of wildlife, as food or for tourism, by local people.
The rehabilitation of Gorongosa will involve restoring its economy, following the emergency relief work of recent years. By the time the civil war ended in Mozambique, 1.7 million people had fled the country as refugees and a further five million people were displaced internally. In all the displaced represented about 10 per cent of the population. Following a peace accord signed in 1992 and a general election two years later refugees flooded back, many of them to areas close to Gorongosa Game Park.
Researchers from the university will help design conservation and management plans for the park. Dr O'Keefe said: "The plan is to preserve what is left of the natural forests and wildlife and develop forestry and eco-tourism as income generators for local people."
Rapid population growth, low incomes, the need for more food crops and the development of markets for products such as timber and livestock has left the natural forest devastated. Researchers will investigate the economic viability of non-timber forest products - edible fruits, oils and medicines. The plan is to promote social forestry, developing community nurseries and agro-forestry, where people harvest trees from their own plots of land rather than from the natural forest.
Wildlife conservation and management will require strategies for the control of illegal hunting, the sustainable use of wildlife and eco-tourism. "The long-term goal will be to get 'the big five' back to the park - lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard," said Dr O'Keefe. "We know from work elsewhere in Africa that, if managed correctly, these can draw in a lot of revenue for locals through tourism."
The first task for researchers will be a detailed inventory of the park's flora and fauna and then the implementation of monitoring and restocking programmes.
Both ETC UK and the university of Northumbria have particularly strong links with Mozambique. Dr O'Keefe has had a keen involvement with Mozambique since 1975 and this week Boaventura Chongo Cuamba, a physics lecturer at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, gained the first joint PhD awarded by both universities.
A 14-hour drive from Maputo on non-existent roads, Gorongosa is not the easiest place to work, but it is probably the most valuable, being the largest and among the most degraded of Mozambique's seven game parks.