There are not many truly unknown places left on Earth, places where nobody knows who and what lives there, where the waterways go, or how the ecosystems operate. Eastern Angola is one of those places, and that helps explain why this place, which has little to no potential for agriculture, oil, development, or resource extraction, now finds itself with a number of suitors aspiring to protect it.
This huge chunk of land, slightly larger than the state of Tennessee—flat, sandy, littered with unmapped and uncrossable waterways that sometimes change locations, like staircases in Hogwarts—could be well on its way to becoming a national park. The land is sparsely populated and fairly inhospitable; the Portuguese called it “the land of hunger” and “the land at the end of the world.” But the provisional name for the developing park is Lisima Lwa Mwondo, “the source of life” in the Bantu dialect spoken there.
Over the next few years, as development and outside interests—humanitarian, capitalistic, political—continue to move into Angola, there is a rush for the do-gooders to preserve the environment. If they wait or fail, they believe, these areas, preserved to some extent by conflict and neglect, may never be the same.
“Our history, in terms of war, is just one after another,” says Adjany Costa, an ichthyologist and conservationist who has spent most of her life in Luanda, the capital of Angola. From the years before the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975 all the way until 2002, Angola suffered through successive and sometimes overlapping civil wars that can seem to blur into one long, brutal conflict. This history makes it, incredibly enough, one of the most talked-about hotspots for conservation over the past half-decade.
Angola’s civil war was political rather than ethnic, with multiple entities, some of which have become political parties since the conflict’s end, fighting for control of the young country after independence. Over time, various foreign powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, South Africa, China, and Cuba—funneled arms, intelligence, and soldiers into the country to further dubious Cold War goals. The war itself is far too complicated to explain here, but it was an incredibly bloody and destructive conflict that killed more than half a million people, displaced a million more, and destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure.