With the help of an array of 60 camera traps, Gaynor and a team of researchers documented the current wildlife populations in the park. They found that many carnivores and ungulates once populous before the war — including iconic African animals like wildebeests, zebras and hippopotamuses — are now scarce. In their place, the landscape is now dominated by other animals, like baboons, warthogs, bushbucks and especially waterbucks.
They also found that smaller predators, including house cat-sized animals such as civets, mongooses and genets, are thriving. This may be because the loss of many apex predators removed competition for prey and prevented these smaller predators from being eaten by larger carnivores.
“Gorongosa is a heartening example of ecological rehabilitation, but this work and others shows restoring nature is a slow and meandering process — even when the old actors are put back in place, they often take on new roles,” said Justin Brashares, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study.
At this point, it is unclear if the distribution of species in the park will one day return to its pre-war condition, or if it will one day reach a different steady state. Since the study was concluded, wild dogs and leopards have been reintroduced into the park in an effort to balance the predator populations.
“Our study represents the first data point in what will hopefully be a long-term, ongoing camera trap monitoring effort,” said Gaynor, currently a postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at UC Santa Barbara. “Gorongosa has been a really remarkable conservation success story, but I think it’s also pretty interesting how the system has recovered asymmetrically. There remain questions about the causes and consequences of that asymmetry and how the wildlife community is going to change in the future, given ongoing transformations to the landscape.”