Nation & World

How Boise’s zoo is powering preservation in Africa

Forty years ago, 3,000 zebras roamed the 1,456 square miles of Gorongosa park in Africa. Decimated by 15 years of civil war, perhaps 10 zebras remained by 2012.

Today, in a special screened pen, there are 15 more – purchased by visitors to a zoo in Idaho who contributed 50 cents at a time.

“I’ve been working at the zoo for a long time, so I see zebras every day. But those zebras were special,” said Steve Burns, director of Zoo Boise. “It brought it home to me, to be able to see how the money that we’ve given has been spent.”

These zebras are symbols of the changing power of zoos.

The Boise zoo has developed a unique partnership with Gorongosa National Park and has pledged $2 million from conservation fees it collects from patrons over the next 10 years. Boise’s program could be a model for other zoos to help restore degraded global wildlife and get visitors involved in financing worldwide conservation.

“I truly think that zoos and aquariums in the United States could be the biggest source of revenue for wildlife conservation in the world,” said Burns, chairman-elect of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

To skeptics, Burns cites the role the Bronx Zoo played in saving the American bison.

William Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo at the dawn of the 1900s, went to the West, captured the last of the wild bison and bred them in New York, Burns noted.

“There wouldn’t be bison in this country if that had not happened,” he said.

In 2007, Boise became the first U.S. zoo to charge a conservation fee. It started charging every visitor a quarter to help animals in the wild. That fee is now 50 cents, or $5 on an annual pass. Between 2007 and 2013, Zoo Boise visitors have raised $1.2 million for wildlife conservation projects as close to home as the Southern Idaho ground squirrel to as far away as the zebras and lions in Mozambique.

Other zoos have followed suit. Today, the 228 institutions in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums donate $160 million a year to wildlife conservation.

“I’ve been pushing to see us get to $250 million,” said Burns, who will become the zoo association chair next fall.

Zoos and other partners are helping captive breeding and reintroduction programs for animals such as the nearly extinct black-footed ferret and the California condor.

Despite the tale of bison in the Bronx, this is a new philosophy: transforming zoos from places to see animals – even rare and endangered animals – to a place where visitors help save animals.

“We felt that in response to the extinction crisis, we had to stand for something bigger than ourselves,” Burns said.

Zoo Boise developed its unique partnership with Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique because of an unusual Idaho connection.

Philanthropist Greg Carr grew up in Idaho and has made it his life’s work to restore the African national park. He is the driving force behind the Gorongosa Restoration Project – not just financially, but philosophically, pragmatically and charismatically.

Carr made his fortune in the tech industry and turned to humanitarian work in 1998. He donated $1 million to develop the Idaho Human Rights Education Center and the Idaho Anne Frank Memorial in Boise. He purchased the Aryan Nations compound in North Idaho and turned the former headquarters for white supremacists into a peace park. He gave $1 million to fund the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene and co-founded the Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls.

When Carr was 40, he started looking for another project and turned to conservation.

He visited Mozambique in 2004. When he landed in Chitengo, the formerly luxurious lodge in the center of Gorongosa National Park, he saw piles of rubble – remnants of a decade-and-a-half-long civil war. The animals were decimated – killed by soldiers for food and by poachers for profit. But the land was beautiful.

“And I thought, ‘Wow, if we restore the park, we restore nature.’ We’re saving the treasure – the national symbol of this country – but we’ll create jobs, and I like the kind of jobs we create,” Carr said.

“Tourism jobs are good jobs; science jobs are good, conservation jobs are good. They’re knowledgeable positions; they require education, have opportunity for advancement. . . . They are what’s called sustainable jobs, because they can last forever.”

The government of Mozambique and the Gorongosa Restoration Project have a 20-year contract to restore the park. Carr has promised to spend at least $40 million over those two decades. The project is touted by many as a model public-private partnership.

“Throughout the world, we need to find good examples of public-private partnerships,” says Susan Wheeler, a top aide to U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Wheeler, who visited in August as part of a privately funded delegation, was heartened by Carr’s work, including programs for community education, health, farming and jobs – “so there are fewer incentives for those folks to participate in detrimental activities to their future, the animals, the environment,” she said.

Crapo is Carr’s cousin. Crapo has not visited Gorongosa, but Wheeler said her trip let her see an Idahoan’s international work firsthand.

“In this world, we are always going to have conflicts between people and environmental issues,” says Wheeler. “Sen. Crapo has set a really great model in working collaboratively. . . . There are some similarities in what Greg is doing in Mozambique and Gorongosa.”

The collaboration between Boise and Gorongosa benefits both parties.

“What’s exciting about this is that (Burns) told me, ‘Greg, we’re glad to help you, but you need to realize something: Gorongosa helps us. Because Gorongosa advances the Zoo Boise mission, and it makes the experience of going to the zoo better for people who go,’” Carr said.

“Most people have busy lives and they don’t know how to help. We’ve made it easy for them,” Burns says. “All they have to do is come to the zoo and do things they would want to do anyway, and when they walk out the door, they’re conservationists. They helped. And if you want to do more, come back again.”

Besides generating donations, zoos are also in a unique position to help in wildlife conservation, Burns said.

Zoos have the facilities for care and breeding. They have researchers and veterinarians. And they have critical mass: 180 million people visit the 224 zoos and aquariums in the U.S. association every year.

“No one else has that. That’s more than major league baseball, football, hockey and basketball, combined,” Burns said.

“We’re good at public outreach, so if you want to have wild places, you have to get people to care about them. We know how to do that. If you need people to take action so you can protect that wild place, we have 180 million people who can help do that kind of thing.”

In August, Burns led the first of what he hopes are regular trips to Gorongosa. The first trip was, in part, to see the projects being funded by Zoo Boise conservation money, and also to support the work of the park through tourism dollars.

“At the end of the day, I believe that tourism is the single most important thing we’ll do for financial sustainability for this park,” Carr said. “It’s a triple win. Tourists come, they have a life-changing and wonderful experience. Two, the park gets revenue for the budget, which goes right into conservation – right into lions, elephants, everything else. Three, tourism creates jobs for the community. It’s all good.”

Zoo Boise has a goal of dedicating 10 percent of its budget to conservation efforts, and in recent years is averaging about 15 percent – one of the highest percentages of any zoo in the country, Burns said.

The secret? Fiscal discipline.

“We only do things we need,” he said, emphasizing the word “need.” His employees know that if they come to him with an idea, they need to explain how much it will cost. Burns is proud of what the zoo has done. And he is happy to challenge other zoos to do more. If the zoo in 200,000-person Boise can pull off such a project, any zoo can.

“When we talk, they listen,” Burns said.