How Idahoans Are Helping to Restore One of Africa's Crown Jewels

How Idahoans Are Helping to Restore One of Africa's Crown Jewels

  • 0

BOISE • Gorongosa National Park is a long way from Idaho — more than 24 hours, eight time zones and more than 10,000 miles. Idaho, however, displayed surprisingly strong ties to the park this summer.

That wasn’t only through philanthropist Greg Carr, who has made the park’s restoration his mission, or Zoo Boise, which sent a delegation to Mozambique, Africa, in August to review the project that its patrons are helping to finance.

Idaho filmmakers are making a documentary to share Gorongosa’s story with the world. A Boise bird expert hopes to match research partnerships. Even a top aide to U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo was there, learning about the challenges of poaching and other global threats to wildlife and wild places.

“It’s neat to see that Idaho has so much talent in different disciplines,” says Carr. “And that we’ve all ended up here and we’re all helping save Gorongosa National Park.”

Meet some of these Idahoans:

‘I’m Committed to This for the Rest of My Life’

GREG CARR, Carr Foundation and Gorongosa Restoration Project

The Idaho philanthropist is why everyone is here. He is the driving force behind the Gorongosa Restoration Project — not only financially, but also philosophically, pragmatically and charismatically.

Carr grew up in Idaho Falls, where he still lives. He also has a home in Ketchum. He made his fortune in the tech industry and turned to humanitarian work in 1998. He donated $1 million to develop the Idaho Human Rights Education Center and the Idaho Anne Frank Memorial in Boise. He bought the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho and turned the property that once headquartered white supremacists into a peace park. He gave $1 million to the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene and co-founded the Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls.

He came to conservation later. When he turned 40, he started looking for a project.

He had been reading books by famed biologist E.O. Wilson and classic and contemporary literature by conservation heroes Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey and John Muir, as well as by activist Tim Flannery.

“They make the world come alive,” Carr said. “They make the mystery and miracle of life on Earth pop out at you.”

“So here we are on this planet that’s 4 billion years old,” he says in Africa, gesturing about. “About 3½ billion years ago, you have the flowering of life. For me, that’s the greatest story ever told.”

The wave of his arm takes in animals, birds, amphibians and insects. “And then somewhere along the way, you realize — more and more, you realize — that as homo sapiens, we are part of this story. We aren’t just the observers, but we are one of those millions of species that evolved on this planet. …

“The fact that we love each other, the fact that we hate each other, the fact that we are able to talk about the fact that we exist — and it’s such a miracle. Every day I’m alive, I feel blessed. I feel hungry to learn it all.”

While searching for a project, Carr met the Mozambique ambassador in New York. His country was interested in working with non-governmental organizations such as foundations.

“I spent a couple of years thinking and studying, learning about Mozambique and saying to myself, ‘What can we do ... to make an impact?’”

Carr visited Mozambique in 2004. He rented a helicopter and toured the country; when he landed in Chitengo, formerly a luxurious lodge in the park’s center, he saw piles of rubble, remnants of 15 years of civil war. The animals were decimated, killed by soldiers for food and by poachers for profit. But the land was beautiful.

“And I thought,’Wow, if we restore the park, we restore nature. We’re saving the treasure, the national symbol of this country, but we’ll create jobs, and I like the kind of jobs we create’.

“Tourism jobs are good job; science jobs are good, conservation jobs are good. They’re knowledgeable positions; they require education, have opportunity for advancement. (They’re) different jobs than working at the bottom of a coal mine or something. They are what’s called sustainable jobs, because they can last forever.”

The Mozambique government and Gorongosa Restoration Project have a 20-year contract to restore the park. Carr has promised to spend at least $40 million. It’s touted by many as a model public/private partnership.

In his vision, restoration of animals and improvement in quality of life cannot happen separately.

“I love this project because we are doing human development and conservation at the same time. And we’re also seeing they can benefit each other. And heck, not a bad place to work, with elephants and lions and 500 different species of birds.”

About 100 people from the nearby village of Vinho are among the park’s 400 employees. The project built a health clinic and a school in Vinho and turned them over to the government to run. Project agricultural staff created a model farm on the land of a village elder to enhance productivity and nutrition.

A new community education center teaches children about the park, the project and conservation values. And the just-completed E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory hosts international teams of researchers to study such things as lions, elephants, antelope and seed distribution. Some of the research assistants are young Mozambican students.

Carr spends about every other month in Africa. When Steve Burns visited in 2008, he remembers Carr thanking him for coming. “At least one other person in the state knows I’m not crazy,” Burns remembers him saying.

At sunset, Carr joined the Zoo Boise group at the edge of a vast expanse of floodplain, dotted with waterbuck and antelope fading into the distance.

“I see why you want to save this,” said a member of the group. Carr beamed.

‘Believing in a Dream’

STEVE BURNS, director of Zoo Boise

Inside Gorongosa National Park is an enclosed wildlife sanctuary for new animals, and within the sanctuary is a boma, an even smaller pen, completely draped in turquoise screen to isolate the animals within. Visitors speak in whispers and creep up a homemade ladder to a blind, where they surreptitiously lift a drape and peek into the corrals.

Seven zebras graze quietly below. A very specific sub-species of zebras, they have been hard to find. They were moved to the park two weeks before and are still adjusting and quarantined. In time, they will join eight sanctuary zebras purchased with Zoo Boise money.

“It brought it home to me to be able to see how the money that we’ve given has been spent,” says Burns, the zoo’s director. “To be able to see zebras in the boma and say, ‘Yeah, we paid for that. We brought them here.’ I’ve seen zebras for a pretty long time. I’ve been working at the zoo for a long time, so I see zebras every day. But those zebras were special.”

Zoo Boise has donated $1.2 million over the past seven years and committed $2 million over the next 10 years to projects in the park. Last year,money went to zebras, lion research, eco-clubs at schools and park ranger training. This winter, zoo visitors will vote on next year’s projects.

How this Boise investment in Gorongosa came to be is the story of Zoo Boise’s own visionary director. That story might begin the moment Burns thought he might leave the zoo.

Burns, director since 2001, at one point applied for a job at a conservation organization. The interview process got far enough along that Burns told his board he might be leaving.

He didn’t get the job. But the Friends of Zoo Boise president asked why Burns had sought it. It was the opportunity to do wildlife conservation on a global scale, Burns replied.

“And he proceeded to give me the best professional gift I’ve ever gotten,” says Burns. “He said, ‘I understand.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you figure out how to make your job like that job, and I’ll support you.’”

It was like a window opening, Burns said.

Zoo Boise became the first U.S. zoo to charge every visitor what is now a 50-cent conservation fee. Burns had buy-in from the Friends of Zoo Boise board, the director of Parks and Recreation, the Parks Commission, the mayor and City Council — all of whom had to approve the idea.

“And people thanked us for charging them more money.”

Most people love wild animals and want to help, Burns said. “Most people have busy lives and they don’t know how to help. We’ve made it easy for them. All they have to do is come to the zoo and do things they would want to do anyway, and when they walk out the door, they’re conservationists. They helped. And if you want to do more, come back again.”

‘I Have Seen so Much (wildlife) Disappear’

BOB POOLE, wildlife cinematographer

When he’s home, Bob Poole lives in Ketchum. Which isn’t often, the life of a freelance cinematographer being what it is.

Poole grew up in East Africa with parents involved in conservation. Poole’s career has an emphasis in African wildlife, but a map of his work has dots scattered around the world. More than 20 years ago, an assignment to make a film with Jim Dutcher and his wolves brought him to the Wood River Valley, which he made his home.

For the past two years, Poole worked on a six-part film series about the Gorongosa Restoration Project for PBS and National Geographic International. The series will be aired on Public Television in the fall of 2015. A teaser intro — including a short segment about Zoo Boise’s trip — is planned for spring 2015.

Poole is a filmmaker and storyteller.

“I’ve watched Africa change over my lifetime in dramatic ways — mostly not for the good when it comes to the wildlife,” he says. “The one positive story I can find is this one.”

Poole met Carr when his sister, renowned elephant researcher Joyce Poole, came to Sun Valley for a book signing and lecture. Bob and Joyce went to dinner with Carr. “We talked a lot,” Poole says.

Later, Poole and James Byrne, a film producer who lives near Hailey, went to Gorongosa to scout a project for National Geographic. The year-long project would become the 2009 “Africa’s Lost Eden.”

“If Africa has a chance for wildlife, it can’t any longer be this massive wilderness. That’s all gone. So it has to be this idea of putting things back together — re-wilding. And that’s pretty much what this project is all about.”

‘It’s Really Cool the Connection Gorongosa Is Making’

HEIDI WARE, community and outreach coordinator, Intermountain Bird Observatory, Boise.

Her first day in Gorongosa National Park, Heidi Ware got up at 6:15 a.m. to look for birds.

She reported in at breakfast: “Eighteen species I could identify and a gazillion more that I couldn’t.”

Ware, 25, is a Boise State graduate. She met Greg Carr accidentally at BSU last spring, when Carr wanted his young niece, who had an interest in biology, to meet a female biologist — a role model. Carr invited Ware to Gorongosa.

“I thought he was joking. He was like, ‘No, no you should totally come to Gorongosa sometime.’ He emailed me in early June: ‘What are you doing in early August? There’s a group from Boise coming.’ … It just sort of fell into place.”

Ware’s Twitter name is TheBirdNerd. To accurately understand her obsession with birds, note that “Birds of Southern Africa” was her reading material on the very long flight to Africa.

Her interest in Gorongosa was multi-layered, starting with the chance to add to her life list of birds.

Day 2: “I’m up to 40 new species today.”

As an example of Carr’s uncanny ability to attract dedicated, skilled people to his work, another of Ware’s goals was to meet researchers and scout research opportunities that could be filled by Boise State faculty or students, as well as opportunities to partner with the Intermountain Bird Observatory or BSU’s international Raptor Research center.

Another researcher, Idaho State University doctoral graduate Ryan Long, spent the summer collaring and tracking 30 Gorongosa antelope. He’ll teach at the University of Idaho this fall and hopes to continue his research relationship with Gorongosa.

‘It’s Such a Small Price to Pay’

BONNY SHEPARD, Zoo Boise volunteer

Every Saturday, you’ll find Bonny Shepard, 73, down by the giraffes. She’s part of the Giraffe Encounter team at Zoo Boise and for $3, she’ll sell you a lettuce leaf that you can feed to a giraffe.

All of the money goes directly to conservation. For the next 10 years, all of that money will go to Gorongosa.

“And the fact that I helped a little bit, $3 at a time...”

In Gorongosa, Shepard visited the zebras, purchased by Zoo Boise, and inspected cameras, also part of Zoo Boise’s contribution. “And it was so real to me. Every $3 I make makes me feel prouder of being a little bit of Zoo Boise as a volunteer.”

Going to Africa has been a dream, starting when she was a little girl enamored by a giraffe. Gorongosa doesn’t have giraffes, but seeing nearly 70 elephants in the wild was magical. “You just have to pinch yourself,” she says.

“We are so fortunate to still be able to see these animals,” she says. “If we don’t all band together worldwide, these places will be poached to death and there will not be any more natural places for these animals to live.

“We have to give a little to keep a lot.”

‘Understanding the Broader Issues’

SUSAN WHEELER, Sen. Mike Crapo’s Washington chief of staff

Sen. Mike Crapo and Greg Carr are closer than one might think — they’re cousins. Crapo has not visited Gorongosa, but his top aide was among a group of congressional staffers on a week-long privately funded trip with the International Conservation Caucus Foundation to Mozambique and South Africa. The delegation brought school supplies, Frisbees and soccer balls for children in the community. And, of course. Spuddy Buddies.

Wheeler said she and her boss choose such trips carefully, and this was a chance to see an Idahoan’s international work firsthand and learn more about the threats from wildlife poaching and trafficking.

“Throughout the world, we need to find good examples of public/private partnerships,” says Wheeler.

Global poaching funds crime syndicates and terrorist organizations, and is a threat to national stability. “Trade in illegal wildlife is as big as the drug trade and as big as the weapons trade,” says Carr. “People should know.”

As many as 900 elephants were killed in northern Mozambique between 2011 and 2013, World Wildlife Fund reports. Gorongosa has, so far, seen mostly subsistence-level poaching.

But in such parks as Kruger National Park in South Africa, Wheeler says, there’s been an “unbelievable increase” in black rhino poaching. says 1,000 rhinos were killed in 2013; there are no rhinos in Gorongosa.

Wheeler was heartened by Carr’s work, including its community education, health, farm and jobs programs. “So there are fewer incentives for those folks to participate in detrimental activities to their future, the animals, the environment,” she says.

“In this world, we are always going to have conflicts between people and environmental issues,” says Wheeler. “Sen. Crapo has set a really great model in working collaboratively. … There are some similarities in what Greg is doing in Mozambique and Gorongosa.”


Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News