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With Cash and a Coalition, Greg Carr Is Out to Save a Wild, Beautiful Place Out to Save a Wild, Beautiful Place

Gorongosa National Park spans one million acres. Philanthropist Greg Carr wants to increase that sevenfold.

(Derek Hudson, Getty Images)

Greg Carr doesn’t think his ability to see past obstacles is that unusual. Like a mountain creek, he just keeps flowing.

That was true more than three decades years ago, when “this kid from Idaho,” as he calls himself, headed off to do his Mormon missionary stint in Japan. Then he followed a vision about digital voicemail that made him stratospherically rich before he hit 30.

He used some of his fortune to set up a human rights policy center at Harvard that enabled a young Samantha Power to write the definitive work on genocide, “A Problem From Hell.” It gave her the props to be named the American ambassador to the U.N.

Carr, 55, is now focusing on conservation. In partnership with the government of Mozambique, he is restoring Gorongosa National Park, a southeast African jewel left ravaged and fallow by almost 20 years of bitter civil war.

Elephants in Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park
Jean Paul Vermeulen

Carr has persisted despite poaching, illicit logging and political instability from bitterly contested Mozambican elections. His constellation of efforts includes, and in fact transcends, botany, zoology, social work and economic development. And diplomacy: He delicately sidestepped any postcolonial suspicions of outsiders.

Building Consensus

“The critical part of this is that I don’t own anything,” Carr explained recently by phone from Idaho, where he was gathering scientists, filmmakers, Mozambican officials and the park’s top operatives for a meeting that was part Sun Valley vacation, part mind-melding and part planning for the next year and beyond for Gorongosa.

Mozambique map
Gorongosa National Park, marked here by the trees icon, sits in central Mozambique about 75 miles from the coast.
(National Geographic Mapmaker Interactive)

“This is the country’s treasure,” he stressed.

“I’m there in a public-private partnership, so I was invited by the government,” he said. “We spent three years making our agreement. The park warden, Mateus Mutemba” — Gorongosa’s public face to its staff and to many levels of government — “is a very well known Mozambican. I don’t think we have much problem of people saying, ‘This guy took our national park,’ because we’re not structured that way. But we were careful.”

Now the superstars of the safari world — elephants, lions, warthogs, antelope — are back or well on their way. The waterbuck have rebounded so vigorously that they are actually a problem. The world’s most famous biologist, E.O. Wilson, calls Gorongosa “ecologically the most diverse park in the world.”

Scientists from Harvard, Princeton and Oxford build off one another’s studies there. Surrounding communities benefit from agricultural support and health care. Politicians, local chiefs and traditional leaders participate in a giant annual ceremony at the annual opening of the tourist season.

Overhead view of Gorongosa National Park
Piotr Naskrecki

“You have to be an optimist, and imagine all the ways it might work,” Carr said. “And you have to talk to other people who feel the same.”

“You have to keep saying, Maybe this will work, or maybe this will. You have to keep trying things. You have to have that ability to say, ‘We will keep trying.’ My entire team is full of optimists.”

An extraordinary number of luminaries, cutting-edge scientists and media stars have also gravitated into Carr’s realm -- drawn to Gorongosa as inexorably as that mountain creek finding its next level.

It’s a complex, amazing ecosystem. Not just a park, really one of the world’s great ecosystems from mountain to sea. Philip Gourevitch

Early on, Philip Gourevitch, the author of books on the Rwandan genocide and the American abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, was hearing about Carr through friends in their overlapping social circles. He pitched a story to The New Yorker. In 2009, the magazine published “The Monkey and the Fish,” a luxuriously detailed — and ultimately respectful — portrait of Carr’s dream project.

“It’s a complex, amazing ecosystem,” Gourevitch recalled recently. “Not just a park, really one of the world’s great ecosystems from mountain to sea.”

How to Rebuild a National Park How to Rebuild a National Park

Greg Carr talks about his work to restore Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park. Video courtesy PBS and Gorongosa National Park

And Carr was humble, he said, “not trying to draw attention to himself.”

“His biggest concern was that the article didn’t come across in Mozambique like Gorongosa was his trophy park. And it was really obvious that this was a pretty difficult place, not easy to operate in. He was spending tons of time there, and had sunk a lot of money into it. This was not a vanity project.”

He was particularly impressed by how Carr’s humble approach to local and national authorities and zeal for universal buy-in helped him evade the traps left by history.

“Game parks are often places where the money and interest and energy and support come not from the local African population,” he said, “but from white guys, Europeans coming in.” Gorongosa, for instance, was set aside by Mozambique’s colonial ruler, Portugal.

Wildlife on the savanna at Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park
Clive Dreyer

A Long-Term Vision

The article about Carr fell into the hands of Rob Pringle, a Princeton ecologist. “I need to know this guy,” he decided. Now he’s helping rebalance the park’s ecosystems — including working out a plan for those fecund waterbuck.

“What’s really exciting,” Pringle said, “is that you get to scientifically address questions like, how do savannas work? What governs the diversity of plant species? And at the same time, by answering those questions, we can directly influence the management of the park. So we’re advancing the conceptual theoretical underpinnings of ecology while being directly and tangibly useful.”

E.O. Wilson, the park’s most prominent champion, paid his first visit in 2011. A blink later, he and Carr were “close collaborators and fast friends,” as Wilson wrote in his 2014 book, A Window on Eternity: A Biologist's Walk Through Gorongosa National Park.

And an extraordinary wildlife photographer that Carr knew vaguely from Idaho, Bob Poole, showed up — and stayed for two years. His six-part documentary series for PBS, Rebirth of Paradise, aired in the fall of 2015.

Characteristically, Carr keeps setting his sights higher.

Big Cats in Mozambique
Clive Dreyer

Part of the agenda for his Sun Valley meeting was a 25-year plan to expand the reach of Gorongosa to more than seven times its current million acres. Across a visionary stretch the size of Connecticut, villagers would run sustainable farms and animals could migrate freely through corridors to other protected areas, keeping fresh DNA flowing into their populations.

“There’s an effort to count the carbon stored in forests and have people pay for that,” he mused as he listed the ways conservation projects like his could be financed.

The idea “didn’t get anywhere in the last 10 to 20 years,” he said, an acknowledgment that did nothing to dim his enthusiasm. “But it’s not clear that it won’t.”