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Letter From A Role Model—How To Save Wildlife And People
January 21, 2020
Letter From A Role Model—How To Save Wildlife And People
In Gorongosa National Park, her country’s iconic equivalent of Yellowstone, Gabriela Curtiz becomes the first woman tourism guide in local history. Part 1 in her ongoing series, "Gaby's Journey"
WHAT IS MORE AMAZING, the Northern Rockies of Idaho or Gorongosa National Park, where you will find a recovering population of the animal above, in Mozambique? I give each of these ecosystems a score of 110 on a scale of 1 to 100!
My name is Gabriella Curtiz and I work in Gorongosa National Park, and not long ago I spent a week in Sun Valley, Idaho.
It was not only vacation in a strange new place—I was learning, thinking and comparing, reflecting on the connections to nature we share in common. I’ll return to Idaho in a moment. But first, I need to tell you about my life and my country.
I am the first woman ever trained as an official Safari Tourism Guide in Gorongosa. We are the flagship park of our nation, like Yellowstone. Some ecologists (including the famous E.O. Wilson) say that we may have the most biodiversity of any national park in the world.
However, the greater Gorongosa region, like that of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, has enormous challenges.Gorongosa Park is surrounded by 200,000 of the poorest people in the world. I know this well because it includes my family. My mother raised five of us without a husband. She taught school for $80/month. She was sometimes posted to teaching assignments in schools far from our home. This meant that I was the one to wake up early, prepare breakfast for my younger brother and then get myself to school. My classrooms typically had 80 children, few books, and often the teacher would not appear at all.
However, my mother taught us that education is our path forward. So, I studied on my own. Our town, which in America might be described as a “gateway community,” is called Vila Gorongosa, and next to us we have the jewel that represents opportunity—the treasure of our nation: Gorongosa National Park.
The author, Gaby Curtiz, at home in the national park she's helping to protect for generations to come by serving as a role model and using education (for local people and global visitors) to be the foundation for co-existence between healthy landscapes and communities. Photograph courtesy Brett Kuxhausen (brettkuxhausen.com)
When I was 12 years old some people from the Park came to our school and showed a National Geographic film about Gorongosa. I saw women who looked like me working there. I decided right then that someday I would work in Gorongosa Park. Please understand that role models here are a genuine phenomenon.
WHEN I WAS 13, I HEARD SOLDIERS FIRING WEAPONS on Mt. Gorongosa (the shots audible from my home). I was not scared. It is hard to explain why. However, we Mozambicans are resilient. We pride ourselves on this trait. We have civil conflict, cyclones, droughts, fires, insects that eat our farms—and we live on an average of less than $1/day per person.
However, hopefully, we always imagine that tomorrow will be better than today. Believing this is the only chance we have that it will become true. Perhaps 500 years of living with a European colonial master—and surviving with our spirit intact—has taught us endurance.
From ages 13 to 17 the war continued right in my back yard. The two political parties in my country had disagreed upon an election result. I know from the eyewitness accounts of friends of mine that the morgue in our small city was often full of the bodies of soldiers…from both sides.
Portuguese was the official colonial language. I spent those years trying to learn English. Why? I knew that was the language that most visitors spoke who go to Gorongosa Park and I retained my dream to work with them, to be their guide. I could not afford to attend the English language school in my town, so I learned on my own.
I graduated from high school (only 10 percent of the people in my country achieve this) and talked my way into an internship at Gorongosa Park. By then I spoke four languages: Portuguese, English, and two African languages. I earned a coveted spot in the Science Department of Gorongosa because they could see that I love to learn.
My assignment was to support biodiversity surveys comprised of Mozambican and international scientists.
One year later there was an opening for an ecotourism guide in the tourism department of Gorongosa. They selected me because I had demonstrated that I was a hard worker in the Science Department.
A lion cub takes shade in Gorongosa. During the 1960s, a nature documentary was made about Gorongosa and it noted that 500 lions, 2000 elephants, 14,000 Cape buffalo and 3,000 hippos lived in the park. Within a single generation, following civil war and rampant poaching, nearly all disappeared. In this new era they are being given a chance to recover—and it's happening. Photograph courtesy Lee Bennett
I spent one year learning to be a tourism guide. This involves both field work and desk work. The crowning moment for me was traveling to South Africa to take a difficult ecology exam in English and earning a 94 percent grade on the test.
What do I do as a tourism guide? How might my role differ from the kind of tourism guides found in wildlife parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton? I speak in Portuguese or English (I guess I should start working on French soon!) and engage with families who visit. Yes, I love showing them lions and elephants and birds and hippos and our 15 species of antelope.
Many of those wildlife populations were devastated by civil war only a few years ago. But, more than helping visitors understand the new Gorongosa, I hope to share my spiritual connection to Nature, which is an innate Mozambican quality.
To me, the large animals, small animals, birds and trees, communicate the miracle of existence. Consider this: for as long as there have been humans on this planet, some of them have lived in my neighborhood. As a species, you and I share a common ancestral birthplace. Gorongosa lies in the Great Rift where Homo sapiens evolved.
Consider this: for as long as there have been humans on this planet, some of them have lived in my neighborhood. As a species, you and I share a common ancestral birthplace. Gorongosa lies in the Great Rift where Homo sapiens evolved.
We also share a common sense of place.
What I see, what I smell, what I hear, what I feel, what I perceive subconsciously—as I walk in Gorongosa Park—lies deep in my DNA and is embedded in the stories I was told as a child, stories that bless me with this profound truth: I am one with this natural world.
I feel I have succeeded as a guide—if the family visiting from thousands of miles away—feels this connection to Nature too. And I imagine this goal is the same for those provide visitors with their first introduction to the special elements of the Yellowstone region.
I hope to share even more than wildlife sightings and the spiritual values of Nature with our guests. I hope to give them a local cultural experience based on a relationship with the land that goes back generations too numerous to count. Gorongosa’s motto is to be a “human rights park.”
Gorongosa’s Human Development Department supports health care, education and agricultural assistance in the gateway communities that surround the Park. I often take visitors to see these villages and meet the people there.
Sometimes on the last day of a visitor’s time with me they will say: “You have changed me.” Yes, words like that can make me cry. I am humbled by having an impact on another. If you visit I promise we’ll do more laughing than crying together.
Not all of our guests come from thousands of miles away. The Park provides free safaris to local children. I am often the guide for these outings. Today, where once I was a student, I am the role model, viewed as an example of what is possible in their local national park that is a treasure in the role.
Not all of our guests come from thousands of miles away. The Park provides free safaris to local children.
These children see someone who looks like themselves in a position of leadership. In fact, sometimes they are so busy asking me questions about my life that they almost ignore the elephants. They keep asking me: “Did you really grow up in Gorongosa town?” and, “Aren’t you from somewhere far away?”
They see themselves, their potential, in me. No doubt, some of them will work in Gorongosa someday. I am delighted to think that I might influence these hopes and dreams. We all can make an impact in our own backyard if we focus on others and not ourselves.
So, what was I doing in Idaho? I hope to attend Boise State University and study business so that some day I will be more than a guide; I want to be the manager of a tourism business in the Park and create hundreds of jobs for the local people.
I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with the Greg Carr family (a philanthropist of Gorongosa) in Sun Valley before continuing on to Boise for my tour of the campus. On my second day I saw a herd of elk from the kitchen window. Imagine my emotion, someone from the Southern Hemisphere seeing a new species for the first time.
In Ketchum, Idaho I gave a talk to children at the community library. We went on a pretend safari through the book stacks, finding photos of African animals I had hidden in advance.
I asked a lot of questions while in Idaho. Sun Valley seems to be a community whose main business is tourism.
This was a good opportunity for me to study tourism economics “in situ.”
There are hotels, restaurants, theaters and stores selling summer and winter equipment. Businesses sell ski lift, ice skating or golf course tickets depending upon the season. And yes, there are guides (my current profession). There are ski instructors, fly fishing experts, rock climbing excursions and more.
This was a revelation to me: an entire town can focus its economy on ecotourism. I also recognized something else when talking to the people of Sun Valley: they know that Nature provides their employment, so they love it and protect it.
I dream that someday my town of Vila Gorongosa can lift itself out of poverty by serving the growing visitor population to Gorongosa National Park. My people will need training to do this.
We’ll need to know how to manage our own businesses. We’ll have to understand capitalism--human resources, sales, marketing and accounting. I hope to lead the way.
I thank my mother, National Geographic, and the people of Idaho for encouraging this dream. Maybe someday soon, I will see you in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. As my guide, what do you think is important for me to know?
Prior to her recent visit to the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Gaby Curtiz had walked near lions, elephants and crocodiles but she had never encountered a different kind of formidable natural force: snow. Here, philanthropist Greg Carr, a native of Idaho Falls and who has played a keystone role in the resurrection of Gorongosa Park, gives Curtiz an initiation into a hardy North American tradition—jumping into an ice-covered lake or river. She survived and is now a proud member of the Polar Bear Club. Photo courtesy Greg Carr
EDITOR'S NOTE: Does Gorongosa hold lessons for the growing movement in North America to recognize indigenous wisdom in managing public parks and protected areas that long served as traditional homelands? What is the best way to engender goodwill and stewardship between parks and gateway communities? How can parks help address local social needs? How does the Gorongosa ecosystem, a flagship for rewilding after a civil war devastated its iconic wildlife populations, nurture the recovery of lions, leopards and elephants yet maintain peace with livestock owners? How is the region dealing with rising human population and preparing for climate change? This is the first in an ongoing series of dispatches from Gaby Curtiz. Check back for more of her observations that speak to the parallels between people and protected areas in Africa and approaches to conservation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and larger American West. To gain an introduction to Gorongosa National Park, view the short video below, or read the feature story in National Geographic by writer David Quammen of Bozeman. Also read the MoJo story about Gorongosa brand coffee that allows consumers to support wildlife recovery and conservation in Gorongosa.