Sun Valley philanthropist Greg Carr and the 260 rangers of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique were preparing for another season of restoration and renewal for the park’s 1 million acres, its wildlife and the people who surround it.
But Cyclone Idai had other plans.
One of the biggest tropical cyclones to hit southeast Africa in more than a century, Idai brought winds of 120 mph and floodwaters to most of Mozambique. Heavy rains began March 4 and continued through mid-March, with the cyclone hitting March 14-15. The storm killed more than 1,000 people and spread havoc across Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, leaving 3 million people affected by the flooding — or worse, homeless.
“The flooding washed away entire homes and all their belongings,” Carr said.
A preservation for African forests, wetlands and savannahs, Gorongosa morphed into a 1 million-acre lake, and many of the 30,000 nearby residents were fighting for their lives. Many were stranded on termite mounds only inches above the water.
Mozambique is one of the poorest nations in the world. There aren’t emergency medical teams, and there are few local police and fire officials to respond to such a natural disaster.
So Gorongosa’s ranger staff immediately became the first responders, spreading across central Mozambique — often on foot through floodwaters — to rescue families struggling to survive. A helicopter had to be used to reach some of the more desolate areas.
But what then?
Carr and his rangers set up a food distribution system for more than 20,000 people who were stranded. Roads and bridges were washed out, but they had an agricultural warehouse two hours away where food could be brought in.
They quickly developed a system for carrying the food — in boats, canoes, trucks and the helicopter — to the roads that were left, crossing washed-out chasms. Over the next 21 days, they distributed 120,000 pounds of food and medical services to the struggling survivors.
They continue to feed 20,000 people daily and will have to wait for the water to recede to replant destroyed crops. The rangers have secured 30,000 tons of seed for the next step in this daunting recovery program.
Greg Carr’s history of philanthropy
Carr, 60, was born and raised in Idaho Falls and went on to get his master’s in public policy from Harvard. He made his fortune in voicemail technology and was chairman of Prodigy, an early internet provider. He donated $1 million to help develop the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights and Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.
He also bought the land and buildings formerly owned by the Aryan Nations in North Idaho, and later destroyed the white nationalist group’s compound. He donated another $1 million to the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene.
Carr also has been instrumental in giving back to Gorongosa’s ecosystem, which had been ravaged by the 17-year civil war that followed Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Many of the large animals had been extirpated by poachers, and the park was left in ruins. In 2004, Carr and the government of Mozambique signed a 30-year partnership to restore the park and to aid the development of the human communities that surround it.
Carr’s community-based conservation, which included building schools, and advancing tourism and other development outside the park, has been widely praised. But he and the park rangers had to expand their vision quickly when disaster hit in March.
“National parks, especially in Africa, need to think of themselves more broadly now, especially in the face of climate change,” Carr said. “National parks must serve the people around them.”
Michel Sousa, a 22-year-old public health major at Boise State University, served as an intern at Gorongosa and will return there this spring when school is out. Many of her relatives, especially in the coastal capital of Beira, were left homeless and without food for days. Diseases such as cholera began to spread.
Sousa compared the cyclone to the recent hurricanes that have destroyed communities in Texas. But unlike Texas, Mozambique has no flood control systems or emergency response infrastructure for preparedness.
She was inspired by the response of her colleagues at Gorongosa and what it means for her future.
“It’s a sad situation, but it tells me I am doing the right thing, and it is important to have this skill set I’m getting,” Sousa said.
Gorongosa’s Zoo Boise connection
Zoo Boise has long had a partnership with Gorongosa through its own conservation mission: Every zoo ticket includes a conservation fee. Announced in 2013, Zoo Boise broke ground in 2018 on a 2.5-acre exhibit that reflects Gorongosa and its surrounding communities.
The exhibit is scheduled to open July 17 and will feature many of the animals found in Gorongosa, including wild African dogs, baboons, Nile crocodiles, vervet monkeys, otters, hyenas and warthogs. It also will have exhibits about the education and other programs for the people around the park.
The Friends of Zoo Boise, which annually gives $200,000 for Gorongosa conservation, voted recently to donate even more this year to the recovery effort.
“Visiting Zoo Boise helps the people of Mozambique,” Peacock said.
What can the future hold for Mozambique?
Carr already is working with Mozambique to expand beyond Gorongosa. His hope is to develop more wildlands that can soak up floodwaters and make the nation more resilient to climate change, which raises sea levels and increases the size and frequency of storms.
“In the future, we’re going to have to maintain our large national wildernesses to provide us with ecological services,” Carr said.
But these areas won’t be national parks, he said. Local people will retain their rights, such as fishing rights.
“We honor and recognize their rights to the land,” Carr said. “That is one of my first principles.”
Carr and the rangers’ recovery effort show that human life is the top priority in their conservation efforts, Sousa said.
“It’s really redefining the national parks to not be just about the animals, but also to be about the people,” Sousa said. “That should be a model around the world.”
How can you help Gorongosa?
To donate to the relief efforts and to the victims of the cyclone, go to www.gorongosa.org/cyclone_relief_fund. Carr’s team has worked with the local and national governments, along with international NGOs, to provide more than 5,400 food kits by air through donations.