Steve Burns, director of Zoo Boise, thinks about animals “all the time…it causes me great pain to see what’s happening with so many of the animals that I think about.”
Burns’ particular worry is that animals in the wild are disappearing. A World Wildlife Fund study says the total number of animals in the wild, like elephants and giraffes, tigers and rhinos, plummeted by 58 percent between 1970 and 2015.
Since most of us will never see those animals in the wild, zoos offer a chance to see and learn about them firsthand. But too many face extinction because of humans. The number of elephants, for instance, fell from 1.3 million in 1980 to 450,000 in 2015. Even worse, they are disappearing at a rate of 96 per day, mostly because of poaching. Giraffe number have dropped 30 percent in the same period, to fewer than 100,000.
Burns’ and Zoo Boise’s concern for the vulnerable have helped our zoo become a leader in wildlife conservation. The zoo started the notion of a “conservation fee” nine years ago that now generates about $300,000 per year, and more than $2.2 million over the last nine years, to support conservation of animals in the wild.
The bulk of that money goes to saving a national park in Mozambique called Gorongosa. As recently as 15 years ago, the park had fewer than 1,000 hoofed animals, thanks to wars and poverty. Humans made (or felt they had to make) choices that obliterated the animal population. Twenty years of war meant soldiers traipsing through the Gorongosa nature preserve; they had to eat, and the hoofed animals were available.
Elephants, hippos, antelope, buffalo and waterbuck all disappeared. After the war finished, a few animals returned, but humans continued to decimate them. Villagers surrounding the preserve faced starvation, so they scoured the land for food. Once again, human choices and needs overwhelmed the animals’ survival.
Thanks to a major benefactor, Idaho’s Greg Carr, and efforts of many partnerships, the park has come back.
Villages surrounding the preserve now are part of an increasingly thriving economic network and ecosystem. Skills training, education and jobs that support tourism mean villagers don’t need to eat the animals. The control of poaching fosters animal survival. Today, Gorongosa is again becoming one of the world’s greatest national parks, with more than 80,000 hoofed animals.
It is a remarkable story of turning science, economics and cultural sensitivity into actions to stop what could have been widespread extermination and extinction of several species.
Partly to celebrate, and partly to help us learn more about the park, Zoo Boise is raising funds to build a Gorongosa exhibit. It will bring a little bit of the Mozambican park to us, including some of my favorite Gorongosa animals: African wild dogs, crowned cranes and warthogs.