The park was in poor shape when Carr came upon Gorongosa in 2004. The Mozambican government had cleared many of the land mines, but the main camp, called Chitengo, was still largely in ruins. Tourists were a distant memory, as were the great animal herds; of a buffalo herd that once numbered 14,000, for example, about 50 animals remained.
"When I came along, nobody talked about it, nobody remembered it," Carr says. "And people said to me, ‘Don't bother, there's nothing there anymore.'"
But with Carr's funding, Mozambican officials say, they will restore the park, teach locals to run it and create an eco-tourism industry. Soon, they believe, improved education, health and living standards will follow. Now, they must convince the local peoples—war-scarred, impoverished and separated by language and custom—that cooperating with Carr is in their best interests.
Carr stares down at Gorongosa's savannas and wetlands, yellow fever trees and a flat, silver lake that reflects his fire engine red helicopter like a mirror. He is flying to Nhatsoco, a settlement on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa, which sits outside the park, so he can meet Samatenje, the mountain's spiritual leader. Carr wants Samatenje to bless the restoration project and persuade villagers to stop cutting down trees.
Trees are crucial to the ecological health of the mountain, an oval massif 18 miles long and as high as 6,100 feet at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley. When warm air from the Indian Ocean hits the mountain, it produces abundant rains, which water the trees—some 500 species. The trees reduce solar reflection and protect against erosion with their roots and canopies; they also absorb the rains like a sponge, allowing the water to collect into rivers and hundreds of springs, which ultimately flow into the park.
Locals consider the mountain sacred, but population growth has pushed people farther up its slopes; traditional leaders say Christian missionaries and creeping modernity have undermined their bans on farming high on the mountain. In either case, clear-cutting for farmland has led to deforestation at an alarmingly quickening rate. Scientists for Carr's project estimate that unless something is done, within five years the mountain's ecosystem will degrade to a point from which it cannot recover.
The helicopter flies over sorghum fields, thatch huts and broad clearings where skinny dogs lie curled up in the dust. It begins to descend when it nears Nhatsoco. Hearing the chopper, villagers gather, about 400 of them forming a kaleidoscope of colorful scarves and clothing, faces lifted toward the sky. As the helicopter lands, they turn away, shielding their eyes from the dust and twigs kicked up by the rotors. But when the dust settles, many glare at Carr and his team, exiting the helicopter. Then a commotion erupts some yards away—the villagers point excitedly at a snake that has forced its way out of the hard-packed dirt.
They believe the snake is an unhappy ancestor. Then someone tells Carr that red, the helicopter's color, represents angry spirits. "There's all this interpretation that now we are not welcome," says Zolho, the warden. The people of Nhatsoco believe strongly in the spirit world. ("You were pretty much a flying bad omen," says Christy Schuetze, an anthropology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.)
Apologies and negotiations ensue: some of the Mozambicans with Carr speak to the village elders; the villagers eventually agree to guide Carr to Samatenje. After a hike of a few miles, the group arrives at dusk at a small compound of thatch huts, one of which contains Samatenje. (It is said he rarely leaves it.) The visitors seat themselves on grass mats outside the holy man's hut, where they speak to him through a dreadlocked acolyte.
Samatenje is angry, the acolyte says through a translator; the snake and the red helicopter have upset him, and besides, Carr and his group should have paused longer before entering the compound. Not only that, but a man accompanying Carr—the area's regulo, or leader—is wearing the wrong clothes. The acolyte tells the regulo to go into a maize field to change clothes and apologize to the ancestors.