From the May/June 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Gregory Carr has applied his ingenuity—and cash—to reinventing a wilderness park in Africa.
When philanthropist Gregory Carr first visited Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park in 2004, he found devastation. Some 30 years of war in this former Portuguese colony in southeast Africa—followed by virtually unrestricted poaching—had all but eliminated populations of elephants, lions, rhinos, zebras, and other native fauna. Those animals once made Gorongosa, encompassing 1,544 square miles, a popular safari park. Carr decided to devote much of his personal fortune—amassed during his years as an entrepreneur—to rebuilding the park's ecosystem and fostering local economic growth through ecotourism.
Tell us more about Gorongosa. The park was one of the world's great ecosystems but was destroyed and forgotten. Even the Mozambicans had given up on it. No one even believed there were still animals there. So we had to convince them to believe in their own national park. The first time I went, I was just traveling as a tourist. But I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and the kindness of the people, so I started looking for a project. I asked myself, "What can Mozambique do to build its economy?" The country's overlooked assets include more than 1,500 miles of Indian Ocean coastline with some of the best beaches in Africa, and also the rain forest and savannas inside the Great Rift Valley. It occurred to me that the country really should be capitalizing on this beauty. Ecotourism should be a multibillion-dollar industry, and it's practically nonexistent. So I e-mailed the Mozambican ambassador to the United Nations. I met with World Bank, U.S. government, and Mozambican advisors. We toured the country, selecting six promising areas, with Gorongosa coming out on top. We said: "This is magnificent. Let's restore it."
You've poured millions into the park, beefed up security, and imported animals. What is your goal? Gorongosa should be run by the people of Mozambique. Frankly, it shouldn't be run by a private individual. Once the park gets healthy—with a financial structure, an infrastructure, and a thriving tourism industry in place—I hand it back to the government. Someday there could be 100,000 or 200,000 visitors a year coming to Gorongosa, with their park fees covering the park budget.
You're also investing in the local community. Yes. My background actually was not in conservation but in human development, economic development, social issues, and human rights issues. Oddly, that's how the project started—with wanting to alleviate poverty. Poverty is a big threat to an ecosystem. People resort to catching wild animals, doing illegal mining, setting fires. To prevent that, nearby communities need to prosper. This park can create thousands of jobs in tourism. Now we're working with 15 traditional communities that surround the park. We help them with their farming and land planning, and, obviously, we hire them for jobs inside the park. In an ideal world, 20 years from now, the park would be surrounded by a nice middle-class—by African standards—community that loves the park and understands that the park is helping them. We have to create that culture through conservation education. Mozambican kids are smart, and I've been delighted with how quickly they learn. We have them coming out of a three-day workshop really understanding what the national park is and what it can mean to their future.
What would you do differently if you were starting out again? I didn't fully appreciate five years ago, when I jumped in full speed ahead, all the regional politics involved. I had read my Mozambican history books, but I didn't completely understand the political tensions with Zimbabwe and South Africa. I made some unwise hiring decisions, bringing in folks from other countries in Africa that the Mozambicans were wary of. I also had to replace the management team. It's a Catch-22, because of course the local people probably are not going to have all the experience needed to work in a national park. But people you bring in are seen as outsiders, and there is no easy way around that. The broader point that I'm making is this: Politics matter a lot in conservation. In fact, conservation is politics. It is convincing vast numbers of people with very different interests—landowners, ranchers, recreationists, loggers, miners, tourists, and regional politicians—that they should want a national park. It takes a massive public education campaign.
And you need to educate the park visitors as well, I suppose. We need to get tourists to appreciate a larger scope of things when they go on a safari. You want to get beyond saying, "I want to see an elephant in the first hour, a lion in the second hour, and tonight I better see a rhino." We need ecotourists who will appreciate the beauty and the complexity of an ecosystem, who will see that the baobab tree is amazing. They should stay long enough to broaden their understanding beyond a few charismatic mammals to include birds and smaller animals, for example. They end up having much more fun.
Could the travel industry itself do a better job of helping you and others like you? Travel agents always have their safe choices, but perhaps they can push some of their more adventurous clients, saying, "I want to send you to this place you have never heard of; it's a little rough; everything is not perfect; but you will see real wild Africa and have a true adventure, not a homogenized experience. The place is called Gorongosa."
Bio: Greg Carr earned a fortune selling digital voice mail systems to telecoms and later served as chairman of Prodigy, an Internet service provider. Switching to philanthropic goals, he created the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and the Gregory C. Carr Foundation. He founded a museum in Idaho and a theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler .