War-induced collapse and asymmetric recovery of large-mammal populations in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

Marc E. Stalmans, Tara J. Massad, Mike J.S. Peel, Corina E. Tarnita, Robert Mitchell Pringle

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50 Scopus citations


How do large-mammal communities reassemble after being pushed to the brink of extinction? Few data are available to answer this question, as it is rarely possible to document both the decline and recovery of wildlife populations. Here we present the first in-depth quantitative account of war-induced collapse and postwar recovery in a diverse assemblage of large herbivores. In Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, we assembled data from 15 aerial wildlife counts conducted before (1968-1972) and after (1994-2018) the Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992). Pre-war total biomass density exceeded 9,000 kg km -2 , but populations declined by >90% during the war. Since 1994, total biomass has substantially recovered, but species composition has shifted dramatically. Formerly dominant large herbivores-including elephant (Loxodonta africana), hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), zebra (Equus quagga), and wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)-are now outnumbered by waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) and other small to mid-sized antelopes. Waterbuck abundance has increased by an order of magnitude, with >55,000 individuals accounting for >74% of large-herbivore biomass in 2018. By contrast, elephant, hippo, and buffalo, which totaled 89% of pre-war biomass, now comprise just 23%. These trends mostly reflect natural population growth following the resumption of protection under the Gorongosa Restoration Project; reintroductions (465 animals of 7 species) accounted for a comparatively small fraction of the total numerical increase. Waterbuck are growing logistically, apparently as-yet unchecked by interspecific competition or predation (apex-carnivore abundance has been low throughout the post-war interval), suggesting a community still in flux. Most other herbivore populations have increased post-war, albeit at differing rates. Armed conflict remains a poorly understood driver of ecological change; our results demonstrate the potential for rapid post-war recovery of large-herbivore biomass, given sound protected-area management, but also suggest that restoration of community structure takes longer and may require active intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0212864
JournalPloS one
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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