Feature May 12, 2015

Paradise Lost, and Found

Can a Conservation Effort in Africa Show Us a Way Forward?

Each year in April, after the rainy season in Mozambique has passed, Greg Carr finds himself at the base of a sacred tree on the southern edge of Gorongosa National Park. Village elders lead a gathering of people from the traditional communities surrounding the park, along with Carr, in a ceremony of prayer. In accordance with their traditional beliefs, which might be loosely called animism, they pray to the tree, and they pray to their ancestors’ spirits who live in trees.  They then pray to the animals in the park nearby and tell them that tourists will be coming soon, as a courtesy to the animals. The occasion is joyous—a specially brewed concoction is passed around—as it marks the formal opening of the park for the year.

How did a former tech entrepreneur, Idaho Falls native, and part-time Ketchum resident end up in such a place? The answer lies in the story of a park once considered the grandest of Africa, a country decimated by war, and in what may be the biggest ecological experiment of our time. 

Greg Carr in his home in Sun Valley, Idaho. Photo by Kristin Cheatwood.

Mozambique lies on the eastern coast of southern Africa, directly across from the island of Madagascar. Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was the first European to land on its shores in 1498, and Portugal more or less controlled the land for the next 450 years. Established as a national park in 1960 by the Portuguese, Gorongosa National Park, with its wealth of wildlife and spectacular natural beauty, became a tremendously popular tourist destination through the 1960s and early 1970s.

Situated on the southern end of the Great Rift Valley of Africa, the park spans over a million acres and is home to diverse ecosystems, including savanna, floodplain grasslands, dry woodland forests, and a rainforest atop Mount Gorongosa. The mountain, which stands 6,112 feet, and its rain forest receive over 79 inches of water annually and serve as the water catchment system for the entire park. It is the literal lifeblood of the land below as water flows down through a network of rivers and streams into Lake Urema and a massive floodplain.

In 1972, South African ecologist Dr. Kenneth Tinley conducted an aerial survey of the park and found a land teeming with life. Tinley estimated there to be 14,000 buffalo, 2,500 elephants, 3,500 hippos, 3,500 waterbuck, 3,500 zebra, 200 lions, and thousands of other herbivores. One could call it an Eden, of sorts, but one millions of years in the making. However, the paradise that was Gorongosa was to suffer a fall that nearly extinguished it.

Soon after Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975, civil war broke out. It was a brutal, bloody struggle for 16 years. A million people were killed; several million fled in exile. People were tortured and maimed; land mines were deployed. In the frenzy of battle, schools and health centers were wantonly destroyed. As the park was a major battleground, the animals suffered immensely, as well. The fighters killed them for meat. Elephants that weren’t killed were traumatized by the bloodshed. By the end of the war, in 1992, the land remained; the animals were gone.

In what could only be considered a parallel universe, Greg Carr was an Idaho Falls teenager when the Mozambican civil war broke out. He was the youngest of seven kids, son of a surgeon and a homemaker. After studying history at Utah State University, Carr went on to earn a degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In his final year at Harvard, 1986, Carr had an idea for creating what we have come to know as digital voice mail. Carr and Scott Jones, a young scientist at MIT, formed a company they called Boston Technology. Within four years, Boston Technology was the leading provider of voice mail systems to the telephone companies.

Lion recovery in Gorongosa National Park. Photo by Jeff Trollip.

By the end of the Mozambican civil war in 1992, Carr had limited his duties at Boston Technology to involve himself in other ventures, one of which was to serve as Chairman of Prodigy, an early Internet service provider. But by 1998, he was done. He had amassed a great deal of money, resigned from boards, formed the Carr Foundation and committed his life to furthering human rights through philanthropy. 

Carr’s first move was to donate $18 million to create, in 1999, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The next year he built the Museum of Idaho in his hometown of Idaho Falls. In 2001, he bought the court-impounded former Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake and promptly donated it to the North Idaho College so that it could become a peace park. Then, in 2002, Carr joined with others to enable the construction of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise.

These projects, however grand, paled in comparison to the challenge Carr saw in Mozambique. He began visiting the country in 2002 and returned a number of times over the next few years. What he saw was one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the World Bank, the per-capita income in Mozambique in 2002 was $230 per year. Life expectancy was 48 years, and malaria and AIDS were ravaging the country. 

“I first went to Mozambique thinking about how we were going to help these people lift themselves out of poverty,” Carr told me during one of several visits this spring. “They’ve got a health care crisis, they’ve got poverty, and what are we going to do? Then I stumbled on to this idea of, hey, if we restore this national park we’re going to create a lot of jobs and economic activity. And they’re good jobs, jobs I like—biologists and park rangers. It’s not going to be a bunch of people at the bottom of a coal mine.” It was Carr’s entrepreneurial instincts at work to do social good. His thinking was, “If Kenya could have a billion-dollar tourism industry, why couldn’t Mozambique?”

Rain that falls on Mount Gorongosa flows into a massive floodplain savanna and eventually into Lake Urema. Photo by Jeff Trollip.A young baboon in Gorongosa, Africa. Photo by Michael Paredes.

Left: Rain that falls on Mount Gorongosa flows into a massive floodplain savanna and eventually into Lake Urema. Photo by Jeff Trollip. Right: A young baboon in Gorongosa, Africa. Photo by Michael Paredes.


Not only would the park create jobs, but it would also generate fees that could go to sustaining the park in the long term. What’s more, Carr thought, tourists and tour operators could be part of the solution in helping an ecosystem. With tourists moving around the park, he would have that many more eyes looking out for illegal snares that might kill a lion or illegal logging that would threaten the soil or the water catchment.

After a couple of years of planning discussions, Carr signed an agreement with the Mozambican government to restore and co-manage the park for 20 years. In that agreement, Carr pledged $40 million of his own money. 

Money and time commitment notwithstanding, the complexity of repopulating and restoring life to a million acres of African savanna was daunting. To provide a frame of reference, Carr said that early on he could “drive all day and see nothing, maybe one warthog, maybe one baboon, but, I’m telling you, you didn’t see wildlife.”

One of the world’s preeminent biologists, Edward O. Wilson, has spent time in Gorongosa, and, in his book “Window on Eternity,” he reports the decimation of the animal population that occurred between 1972 and 2001. “The number of Cape buffalo counted in the park went from 13,000 to just 15; the wildebeest fell from 6,400 to one; hippos went from 3,500 to 44; and instead of 3,300 zebras, there were 12. Elephant herds and lion prides were reduced by 80 to 90 percent.”

How does one rebuild an entire ecosystem—in practice, many ecosystems—essentially from scratch over an area greater than a million acres? Certainly, the Noah’s Arc approach is not the way to do it. The answer is to do it with great care and deliberation, and with expert help.

Biologists E. O. Wilson and Greg Carr Carr. At left is Professor Rob Pringle of Princeton University.

An ecosystem is a dynamic entity with many interdependent variables. Introduce too many lions too fast and grass-eating herbivores like buffalo get wiped out. Then the grasses grow out of control and grasshoppers explode in numbers. When the grasshopper numbers blow up, the praying mantid population goes off the charts. And the ripple continues. Make too big of a wave and the system gets so far from its natural equilibrium that it can’t find its way back. 

The next question then becomes: what is the equilibrium you are aiming for? Carr pointed out that ecologists wrestle with this question. “One theory is that given the water and the soil and trees and such in this particular park, there should be a natural equilibrium of animals. So, you would go back and look at the 1960s and, say, ‘that is the natural state, let’s get back to that.’ Another theory is that there is more than one possible equilibrium state. And we may move to a new equilibrium that is stable but different.”

Peter Naskrecki, an associate at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and who is working on the Gorongosa project, illustrated to me how two different species might occupy a similar ecological niche. As the buffalo population went to near zero through the course of the war—perhaps because they are better tasting than waterbuck and were hunted nearly out of existence—the waterbuck population increased by a factor of 10. “Waterbuck breed faster and took over,” Naskrecki said. Where there were 3,000 waterbuck before the war, there are now 34,000. Buffalo have been reintroduced and have climbed up to number 600. The question Carr and many ecologists are asking is, “Ten years from now, will the buffalo make a recovery and start to replace some of the waterbuck, or have the waterbuck permanently established themselves such that the buffalo can’t come back? We don’t know.”

Rainforest on Mount Gorongosa. Photo by Bob Poole.

In big systems like this, ecologists like Naskrecki tend to think in terms of biomass, which is the total mass of a type of animal, say herbivores, in a given ecosystem. So, the relative proportions of animals for a given biomass may fluctuate—varying numbers of buffalo, hippo, elephant, waterbuck, and zebra, for example—while the total biomass might be stable.

According to Marc Stalmans, director of scientific services at the park, the total biomass observed in the park in 2014 was close to the level that was there in the ‘70s, though there are spatial variations across the park—some areas are more densely populated than others. Nonetheless, as Naskrecki put it plainly, “The restoration is working.” 

Ketchum resident and videographer Bob Poole has spent many years in Africa. He has filmed extensively in Gorongosa, working with Carr, and has observed the changes. “It’s staggering how the numbers of animals have increased since I first started going to Gorongosa,” he said.  “From the beginning of my time in the park, there were always lots of warthogs and baboons and plenty of waterbuck on the floodplain, but now we call it Serengeti South.  Not just because of the vast numbers, but the variety of species such as impala, kudu, sable and now even buffalo.” 

Cape buffalo in Gorongosa, Africa. Photo by Greg Carr.

Whether a new but different equilibrium of the Gorongosa ecosystem will be healthy is hard to know. What Carr is aiming for as the project advances is to establish “the maximum number of species and the maximum resiliency. So, buffalo, waterbuck, lion, leopard numbers could bounce all around, you just don’t want any one of them to get to zero.”

Part of Naskrecki’s mission is to gain an understanding of the park’s ecosystem as a whole, which involves collecting a tremendous amount of data. “We are creating a baseline of species diversity and how they interact—what they eat, their health, how the ecosystem changes with the seasons,” Naskrecki said. To this end, they are collecting biological data not just on the big animals but the insects, frogs, plants, and microorganisms that form the foundation of the ecosystem. He said that when they started their database in 2012 there were only a few hundred documented species in the park. Now, they are up to 4,000 species, and he estimates that ultimately the number will be between 50,000 and 75,000 species. 

Perhaps what is most challenging about the Gorongosa Park restoration project is that it is integrated into a comprehensive human development project. About 200,000 people live in the border areas of the park, and many still live in the park despite the difficulties of having elephants eating their farms, poisonous snakes slithering about and crocodiles in the rivers. Nonetheless, Carr respects their prerogative. In fact, he even wrote in his contract with the government that no one would ever be forced to move out of the park. 

The theme Carr often comes back to in talking about this work is the importance of gaining the trust and participation of the local people.

“We have to be really involved in their lives,” he explained. “The park has got to be helping their lives in a lot of different ways, so that they say, ‘you know what, we’re better off with a park than without a park.’”

Child drinking from borehole well in Gorongosa, Africa. Photo by Salvatore Rugolo.Child drinking from borehole well in Gorongosa, Africa. Photo by Salvatore Rugolo.

Left: Child drinking from borehole well in Gorongosa, Africa. Photo by Salvatore Rugolo. Right: Elephant baby and mother. Photo by Piotr Naskrecki.


To that end, Carr’s organization has been building health clinics, both mobile units and permanent facilities, as well as schools. In addition, it helps farmers by providing better seeds, as well as encouraging crop rotation, the use of mulching and modest fertilization. And while he won’t kick anyone out of the park, he tries to encourage them to move into the buffer zones bordering the park. He does this by working with the government to help farmers secure title to land that they otherwise couldn’t get.

To solve the problem of farmers deforesting the rainforest on Mount Gorongosa and thereby threatening the entire water catchment system of the park, Carr’s team has initiated a shade-grown coffee program. Coffee plants are grown between trees in the forest. There is also an extensive nursery and tree-replanting program in place.

Paramount, according to Carr, is that “you have to ask them: ‘What does better off mean to you?’ And they’ll say, ‘we want boreholes (wells) because we don’t like walking five kilometers to the river, and, by the way, there are crocodiles waiting for us there. And they want health care and schools and help with farming and jobs in the park. Those are the big five. And I think we’ve done all of the things they’ve asked. The key is, you have to ask.”

Baby crocodile in Gorongosa, Africa. Photo by James Byrne.

Carr reiterates this idea because so much of the success of this conservation project depends on gaining the trust of the locals. Carr admits that the most challenging part of his efforts has been, as he put it, “Who the heck is Greg Carr, and why is he in our country? It has been a 10-year process, step by step, of building trust. I would say that I have made a lot of progress … but it has been step by step.”

As if that weren’t a precarious enough process, there are politics to consider. This year a new president was elected, and new ministers were appointed. Fortunately for Carr, and the park, the new minister overseeing Gorongosa seems to be on board with both the park restoration and development projects in progress.

One could look at all that is going on in Gorongosa and see two independent problems: a difficult biological puzzle that lots of smart and dedicated people are trying to solve alongside a human development challenge in sub-Saharan Africa. But the real experiment is a much bigger one because the two problems are not independent.

Bob Poole and Jen Guyton examine a bat wing in Gorongosa National Park, Africa.The Gorongosa project really raises a broader question of human ecology: to what extent are we able to move forward with the natural world and its biodiversity intact?

Talking to Carr, it is obvious he thinks about this a lot. His experience at Gorongosa has clearly shaped him. He referred to this century as a “bottleneck century,” though he said this without a hint of resignation.

“I like thinking about human beings as being one among many millions of species on this planet. I like thinking about the fact that we have to find a way to live here in harmony with the other species. There is a certain comfort in the feeling that we belong here. This Earth is our home, and we darn well better figure out a way to protect it and find a sustainable way of being here, or we could be toast in a hundred years.” 

Carr is certainly doing his part to figure it out. And after 10 years of trying to solve the giant puzzle, he shows no sign of getting weary. His enthusiasm is palpable and infectious. In fact, in his recent discussions with the government, Carr restarted the clock on his contract for another 20 years. His new contract runs through 2035.

It is hard not to look at that date and think that it is an awfully long time. But Carr couldn’t be happier. I asked him if he could see beyond the Gorongosa project, that is, for himself.

Ever thoughtful, Carr considered the question for a good long moment. “No. I think this is what I do. There are so many pieces to it. I’m never going to get bored. There’s the science. We make films now. It’s endless. I mean, I’m growing coffee!” he said with the joy of a child. “Gorongosa coffee!”    

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.