What Carr has embarked upon is one of the largest individual commitments in the history of conservation in Africa. To restore Gorongosa National Park, he has pledged as much as $40 million over 30 years, an almost unheard-of time frame in a field where most donors—governments and nonprofit organizations alike—make grants for four or five years at most. He also plans one of the largest animal reintroduction efforts on the continent and hopes to answer one of the most debated questions in conservation today: how to boost development without destroying the environment.
His efforts come against a backdrop of worldwide biodiversity loss, which is at its worst in developing regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where conflict and poverty accelerate natural resource destruction. Last year, the World Conservation Union reported that 40 percent of the species the group assesses are under threat of extinction.
Gorongosa, Carr believes, will change all that.
The park was once one of the most treasured in all of Africa, 1,525 square miles of well-watered terrain with one of the highest concentrations of large mammals on the continent—thousands of wildebeest, zebra and waterbuck, and even denser herds of buffalo and elephant than on the fabled Serengeti Plain. In the 1960s and '70s, movie stars, astronauts and other celebrities vacationed in Gorongosa; tourists arrived by the busload. Tippi Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, was inspired by Gorongosa's lions to build her own exotic cat preserve outside Los Angeles. Astronaut Charles Duke told his safari guide that visiting Gorongosa was as thrilling as landing on the moon.
"They called it the jewel of Mozambique," says Frank Merry, a visiting scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, which has received a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to study Carr's project. "You've got an iconic resource there....In the U.S., you might think of Yellowstone."
But all of that was before Mozambique's 16-year civil war, which erupted soon after the country won independence from Portugal and set up a socialist, single-party government in 1975. As was common across post-independence Africa, antigovernment forces took refuge in national parks, a ready source of hidden shelter and food. They set up headquarters just outside Gorongosa, and the park itself became a battlefield: land mines were planted, the main camp was shelled and the animals were slaughtered.
"There were government forces, you had the rebel force, you had displaced people—they all used the park," says Zolho, the current warden, who was a ranger in Gorongosa when the rebels attacked. "We closed the park in '83 because it was impossible."
Outside the park, government soldiers forced villagers into towns or "communal villages" dozens of miles away, often along the main road linking Zimbabwe to Mozambique's port of Beira. It was a traumatic move for people who had spiritual connections to the land and for families accustomed to living at some remove from one another.
"We ran away because we heard the shooting, and they [rebels] started to cross to this side" of the river, says Joaquim Coronheira, the 68-year-old fumo, or chief, of Vinho. "So during the night, we were running. Kids were on our backs and everybody was running. There were many killings."
By the time the war ended, in 1992, a new constitution had already established a multiparty government and market-based economy. Villagers returned and rebuilt their thatch houses. Some moved into the park itself, setting fires to clear fertile land. Poaching increased as people snared animals to feed themselves and to sell at local bush meat markets. There were few rangers to stop them.