Stuart Pimm enjoys a fellow naturalist's first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and the global lessons drawn from it.
A Window on Eternity: A Biologist's Walk Through Gorongosa National Park
- Edward O. Wilson
Speeding northwards, I luxuriated in the smooth South African highway: soon we would cross into Mozambique, where I could expect a rutted dirt road. But there wasn't even that. Beyond the border-post's single hut, a braid of narrow, indistinct tracks headed in all directions. We picked the travelled paths; there might be land mines along unbeaten ones. Mozambique had suffered a brutal war of independence and subsequent upheavals between 1964 and 1992. An estimated one million Mozambicans died, wildlife was slaughtered and forests burned. So why were we there?
For the same reason as Edward O. Wilson — the region's exceptional biodiversity. As he explains in A Window on Eternity, “Anywhere I am in the world I love it when the air is warm and moist and heat bounces off the sunlit earth, and insects swarm in the air and alight on flowers.” In the book, Wilson explores and revels in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, where the wet heat makes for a riot of what the eminent biologist calls “the little things that run the world” — insects and other invertebrates. At the heart of the park is Mount Gorongosa, which, at 1,863 metres high, catches enough moisture from Indian Ocean winds to support a dripping rainforest. In East Africa, you can move from dry grasslands to savannah woodlands to montane rainforest in the space of a few kilometres, with each habitat harbouring unique species.
Unexpectedly, Wilson is new to sub-Saharan Africa: the book is a chronicle of his first visit there in 2011. His responses recall Darwin's enthusiasm on first encountering the Brazilian tropics, marvelling breathlessly at one fascinating species after another.
Inevitably, ants — his speciality — take centre stage. Their social systems led to Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, his landmark 1975 study on animal societies. Gorongosa's ants are new to Wilson, however. He picks up a Matabele ant (Pachycondyla analis), which “gnashed its mandibles impressively, then ... thrust a long sting into the flesh of my index finger”. (He rates the pain as slightly below that of a hornet's sting.) These are the ant equivalent of “sappers and light cavalry” — heavily armoured and specialized for raiding termite communities that build hardened mounds of mud that can reach the size of a bus. The termites have their own soldiers, but the ants overwhelm them by sheer force of numbers and ferocity.
Wilson also delights in driver ants, whose colonies can number 20 million workers. They are blind, but sensitive to smell and movement. Their leaderless swarms engulf the ground and low vegetation, seizing almost any live animal in their path. Useful things, driver ants: nothing quite like a visit from them to clean out vermin-infested tropical homes.
There is a world of sound, too, although it is mostly hidden. Entomologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki, who accompanied Wilson, gathers the audio. He brings special equipment to record sounds of up to 250 kilohertz, well above our human limit of 20 kHz. “The unaided ears of a human walking through the forest at night are assaulted by a riot of unheard katydid cross-talk,” Wilson recounts. We humans — and, presumably, potential predators — hear warning sounds, but not other, still vital communications.
A Window on Eternity revels in biodiversity and nature's inventiveness. Wilson damns “the corporate priesthood” that views “restructuring ... Earth to accommodate vast numbers of people” as progress. There may be those to whom species do not matter, to whom extinction is an abstraction. To Wilson, species are our “phylogenetic kind” and individual species matter to him. He indicts those for whom 'Anthropocene' is a term that carries the political baggage of acquiescence to human domination of landscapes. The world cannot dwindle into a vast garden, he urges. To him, wildlands are “our birthplace”; a further “slide into extinction will turn the Anthropocene into the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness”.
His choosing Gorongosa is surely no accident. In common with much of Mozambique, it lost almost all of its large animals during its wars: by 2001, buffalo had dropped from 13,000 to 15; wildebeest from 6,400 to 1; and hyenas and rhinos had become locally extinct. Entrepreneur and philanthropist Greg Carr drove across the area in 2004, going days without seeing large mammals. He initiated the Gorongosa Restoration Project to plant trees, reintroduce large mammals, and create a tourist centre to make the park self-sustaining. Wilson plants his defiant flag defending biodiversity in a place once so brutally despoiled that its recovery is truly momentous.
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Pimm, S. Ecology: Wilson in Africa. Nature 508, 178–179 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/508178a