Idahoan Greg Carr’s patience and perseverance has transformed an ecosystem in the face of poverty, war, resignation and climate change.
Carr’s partnership with Mozambique has succeeded in restoring Gorongosa National Park to one of Africa’s great safari experiences. But it took a willingness to take what nature and men alike threw at them — and innovation to make the park the place it’s become — to attract the necessary visitors required to pay for it.
During 10 days in June, I saw it as I tagged along with Liz Littman, assistant director of Zoo Boise and a group of the zoo’s supporters.
The game drives were spectacular. The group watched lions on a kill. Some saw elephants in the thick, tropical forest. Others saw several of the colorful wild dogs taking dust baths and frolicking as others guarded the den where a new set of pups were growing.
All of us saw thousands of antelope, waterbuck, impala, nyala, kudu bushbuck and sable in the wild park. The menagerie of exotics birds, yellow-billed and saddled-billed storks, crested cranes, egrets, eagles, pelicans, hornbills, hammerkops and buzzards, was overwhelming.
Did I mention the crocodiles, hippos and warthogs?
Zoo Boise is taking another group later this summer, and its development director Rachel Winer tells me the zoo plans to sponsor two trips again in 2020. They are a chance to see in person the conservation that 10 percent of your entrance fee into the zoo has accomplished.
Beginning Wednesday, Boise residents and visitors will get to see a taste of Gorongosa without having to fly to Africa as the Gorongosa exhibit opens in the zoo. I got a sneak preview, and it’s a great walking safari.
Carr, 60, who grew up in Idaho Falls, cut his teeth in human rights work after he made his fortune selling his ground-breaking voicemail services company. So while the park and its wildlife have been the focus of the dozens of stories about Gorongosa since he came in 2004, improving the lives of the 150,000 Mozambicans who live around the park has always been the focus.
“I like animals, but it’s the people I really care about,” Carr said.
The park restoration is clearly tied to the tourism business, which is the major job creator in Sofala Province now that a nearby sugar mill is closing. Those jobs include rangers, park managers, tour guides, wildlife biologists, road crews, construction crews, chefs, cooks, bartenders, waiters and hotel staff. That doesn’t count the scientists studying the ecosystem simply to add to the world’s knowledge.
Then there are the schools, clinics and other local facilities Gorongosa has built throughout the 12 million-acre buffer zone. There are the programs like the girls clubs, which also train young men and women in the communities to support the 12-16 year old girls. There are the eco clubs in the high schools that are so popular they must turn students away.
Then there are the other revenue producers, the coffee business, other agroforestry efforts, planned cashew and fruit businesses aimed at putting money in farmers’ pockets and creating jobs.
This is conservation in the 20th century, and Carr has taken it to a new level. His investment in Mozambique has already totaled $60 million, and he has committed another $100 million through 2043.
When I came to Africa for the first time in 1998, I looked at community-based conservation programs like Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas Management Program For Indigenous Resources, or Campfire, where hunters, through their outfitters, pay communities for the wildlife, which the communities own.
I also looked at a similar arrangement around South Luanga National Park in Zambia and a less formal project at Nyika National Park in Malawi. The debate over trophy hunting has reduced the income for Campfire communities, but I’m told South Luanga is flourishing.
Today the group African Parks, started in 2000, is managing 15 national parks across Africa in partnership with nine countries, including one in Mozambique. Its program is similar to Gorongosa. According to its website, “It maintains a strong focus on economic development and poverty alleviation of surrounding communities to ensure that each park is ecologically, socially, and financially sustainable in the long-term.”
Carr’s biggest contribution has been his choosing of bright young Mozambicans, furthering their education and giving them opportunity. One of our guides, Tonga Torcida first met Greg when he was 15. “Mr. Greg,” as he’s called, came to Mount Gorongosa to climb Murombodzi Falls, one of the toughest short hikes I’ve ever done. Torcida guided him.
He began working in the park and used his first year’s wages to buy his parents a house on the mountain. Later, the Carr Foundation paid for him to attend college in Tanzania. Torcida, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the park’s wildlife and plants, had to learn Swahili in four months because classes were in that language. But Torcida speaks seven languages, so it wasn’t hard.
He got his bachelor’s degree in wildlife management and came back to guide as a way to make money for graduate school. He eventually wants to get into park planning.
Dominique Goncalves runs Gorongosa’s elephant research program and is a National
Geographic fellow. She studied at Boise State University and was in London working on her doctorate when we visited.
Then there is Larissa Sousa, the head of the girls education program, a bright natural leader, who gave a rousing speech in Washington, D.C., along with Goncalves about the girls club program she runs. Her sister Michel is a student at BSU and an intern in the Gorongosa health department.
Gorongosa has the only master’s program completely within a national park. One of its students, Amemarlita Matos, also attended Boise State and camped on Lucky Peak at the Intermountain Bird Observatory. Now she is researching how local communities are interacting with the park.
“I am trying to understand how we can capture traditional knowledge and beliefs and use it to work with local communities to conserve biodiversity,” she told me in an email.
The challenges for sustainable development and conservation over the century are huge, and Gorongosa has seen all of it in the last few years. Climate change is a contributor to the two giant cyclones that hit Mozambique this year. The civil war flared up again, and today residents await a permanent peace agreement.
These young people and some of the young people who were on the Zoo Boise trip give me hope the world can find its way the crises ahead. Greg Carr offers us the model.
Editor’s note: The Carr Foundation helped fund some of Rocky Barker’s expenses to travel to Mozambique to tell these stories.