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FEATURE ARTICLE

Thoughts on Birding Mozambique - dispelling some myths!


By Etienne Marais.  This article is the first of a series on birding Mozambique. It aims to highlight the wonders of this country as well as dispelling a few myths. (adapted from an article published in Lanarius in 2009

Most South Africans who visit Mozambique travel only as far as Ponto de Ouro or the coast north of Maputo, which is now ridden with new resorts and visited by large numbers of "quad-toting" South-Africans. It is thus not surprising that the majority of South Africans have the following mis-conceptions:
  • "Mozambique has little natural habitat left and the forests have been mostly wiped out by illegal logging."
  • "Mozambique is rife with corruption, and any visit there requires plenty of handy cash to facilitate safe passage."
  • "Mozambique is not a safe country. Not a nice place for a holiday.
  • "Most remote areas are riddled with mines and one cannot walk off existing well-used paths and roads anyway."
  • "You need a serious 4x4 which is fully equipped and to be completely self-sufficient to visit Mozambique."
  • "Zimbabwe is a no-go, which means you have to visit central Mozambique via the long and tortuous route which includes Komatipoort and Maputo."
Given these pre-conceptions (prejudices?) about the country, why would people want to go on holiday there, even if to get a few more lifers? The reality is that everyone who visits Mozambique is blown away by the birds, the beauty, the variety of the habitat, the gentleness of the people and most are genuinely impressed by the progress the country is making.

The state of the Habitat

There is no doubt that logging and slash and burn agriculture have taken an immense toll and that forests north of Beira are much reduced in the last two decades. Today, the forests on Gorongosa Mountain continues to diminish due to slash and burn agriculture and sites like Chinizua are a shadow of their former glory. Nevertherless there are still vast amounts of excellent afro-montane and lowland forest accessible to birders, and even larger areas of relatively undisturbed miombo woodland. To put it in perspective, Gorongosa Mountain is nearly 70km long, and has huge areas (far larger than Magoebaskloof) of pristine forest. Mozambique is a vast country and most of the population is concentrated along the coast, rivers and in the most fertile areas. Coutada 12, where we typically do a lot of birding is over 200 000 ha in extent. Catapu is 25 000 ha in extent and an area of less than 1000 ha is affected by sustainable timber harvesting each year. In fact, I've come to the conclusion that protection of forests and habitats is more advanced in Mozambique than in South Africa. Take a look at www.envirotrade.co.uk for information on a highly innovative project involving community forestry and carbon credits at Nhambita, outside Gorongosa National Park.

Corruption and officialdom

Over the last few years, huge progress has been made in reducing corruption in the country, and visitors to central Mozambique are unlikely to encounter much to write home about. On my last trip, we were not stopped in one road block in Mozambique, and hardly at all in Zimbabwe. Law enforcement does exist yes, and I have a speeding fine from Zimbabwe to prove it. Officials are generally polite and friendly - certainly more so than in many parts of South Africa. I would go so far as to say, that other than around the tourist hot-spots in the south, you are more likely to encounter corrupt officials in South Africa than in Mozambique, and more recently even Zimbabwe.

Crime and Safety

The statistics speak for themselves. I have led over 110 birders to Mozambique and I am only aware of two minor incidents - one the theft of a cell-phone in "Villainculos", which due to the influence of rich tourists has become a hot-spot for petty thieves and con-artists. I unknowingly left 300 mets in my pocket when giving in laundry at one of the stops and it was returned to me. Overall people in Mozambique are gentle in disposition, and crime is at a much lower level than in South Africa.

Mines

Mines pose a continued threat to humans in Mozambique, but in a far more limited total area than is generally believed. The total area identified as still requiring clearing in Mozambique in 2008 is just 12 square km. After looking at maps used by mine-lifting units, read official reports and spoken to hundreds of locals about this issue, I am sure that the there are vast tracts of Mozambique which are safe as regards mines. Most of the areas birders spend time in (such as Panda, Catapu, almost all of Coutada 12 and the lower Chinizua road) have no known risk of mines. Where even a slight doubt remains, one must always observe the basic rule of only walking on used paths and roadways.

Access

Birders who visited Mozambique 8 years ago are amazed at the improvement in the quality of many of the roads. Granted there are many roads which are badly potholed, and some areas which require 4x4, but one can now drive to several great birding localities in an ordinary car. Zimbabwe I travel through Zimbabwe regularly, and the change there in the last year is remarkable. The fact that the local economy now uses Rands and Dollars has completely changed things, because money is now flooding in from all the Zimbabweans working in South Africa. You can buy things in the supermarket, fill up with fuel and eat at a restaurant - all in rands. Harassment of tourists has almost completely disappeared in the last year and if you pick your time and day, the border is a lot easier than in the past. When I returned from Seldomseen in June, it took us about 30 minutes to get through both border posts at Beit Bridge!

The Birds

The biggest motivation of getting to Mozambique are the number of new birds that can be seen there. About 105 species are restricted to this area, or most easily seen here. These includes species like Ayre's Eagle and Racquet-tailed Roller which are either very localized or rare in SA, but much more common and regular in Mozambique. Mozambique offers a chance of the following wonderful birds: Crab Plover, Great Knot, Great Snipe, Great Bittern, Blue Quail, Madagascar Cuckoo, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Pallid Honeyguide, Speckle-throated Woodpecker, African Pitta, Tiny Greenbul, White-chested Alethe, East Coast Akalat, Black-headed Apalis, Short-winged Cisticola, Red-winged Warbler, Black and White Flycatcher, Livingstone's Flycatcher, Anchieta's Tchagra, Chestnut-fronted Helmet-Shrike, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Black-winged Bishop, Lesser Seedcracker, Locust Finch, Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah and Twinspot Indigobird.

The Unexplored

One wonderful aspect of Mozambique is how much unexplored birding terrain remains. It's been a great experience to explore the area on and around Mount Tsetsera where high forest edges hold many Red-faced Crimsonwings, and nearby miombo woodlands hold surprises like Tree Pipit, Whyte's Barbet and Spotted Creeper. This July (2009) I was blown away by the beauty and wilderness of the Chimanimani Conservation area in Mozambique. Here high mountains meet miombo woodland and the birding is fantastic. Shortly after encountering a bird party including Miombo Rock-Thrush, Rufous-bellied Tit, Miombo Tit and Black-eared Canary I was scanning the opposite slope to locate the Leopard uttering it's characteristic sawing cough. I'd encourage birders to go to Mozambique- probably the last frontier of Southern African Birding. You will not regret it!

Etienne Marais
Indicator Birding
Updated August 2009

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