One million acres of unanswered questions.
That’s how entrepreneur and philanthropist Greg Carr views Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Africa. Thanks to a recent partnership between Boise State University and the park, many of those questions could soon be answered. Boise State faculty and students will be able to address significant problems while realizing some nice perks in this important ecological “laboratory.”
“This is an incredible opportunity for Boise State and reflects the university’s growing reputation for excellence in the field of ecological research,” said Dr. Bob Kustra, president of Boise State University. “We’re pleased that Greg Carr approached us and look forward to collaborating with researchers from across the globe on this amazing project.”
These include relationships with world-class academic and scientific institutions such as Harvard, Oxford and Princeton, student exchanges and inexpensive housing inside the park.
Featuring majestic landscapes in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Gorongosa once was home to the largest density of wildlife on the continent of Africa. However, during a generation of civil conflict from the 1960s to the 1990s, soldiers and professional hunters killed more than 95 percent of the park’s large species.
Carr saw Goronogosa’s potential and wondered how restoration of its ecosystem could turn things around, both for wildlife and people. In 2008, the Carr Foundation launched a $40 million, multidisciplinary restoration effort to train and hire a new ranger force, reintroduce wildlife populations, create a science research laboratory, restart tourism, and assist nearby communities with health care, education, improved farming and employment opportunities.
Carr is proud of this “Mozambican success story,” where 97 percent of park employees are locals. “The area was once the poorest nation on Earth,” he said. “Now the park is full of wildlife and opportunities for humans.”
His efforts recently were featured in a six-part PBS documentary titled “Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise,” filmed by Emmy Award-winning wildlife cinematographer Bob Poole.
Watching that series, College of Arts and Sciences dean Dr. Tony Roark was fascinated by the palpable enthusiasm of scientists from around the world doing research in the park.
“It’s clear that the researchers there are just beside themselves to have access to … not an unspoiled location, but one largely unexplored by science,” he said. “New species are being discovered regularly.”
Roark noted that aside from opportunities for discovery, the park also provides avenues for inquiry aimed at preserving and conserving biodiversity.
“And that includes helping the human population there,” he said. “This opens up opportunities for cultural research in the arts and humanities as well as the sciences.”
The goal is to train scientists to tackle complex and challenging research questions, including the patterns of change that affect ecosystems, human systems and their interaction, said Dr. Julie Heath, associate professor of biology and coordinator of the university’s Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Program.
“This partnership with Gorongosa National Park will reinforce the similarities among ecosystems all over the world, while enhancing diversity of experience and collaboration,” she said. “This in turn will lead to innovative approaches and solutions.”
For Idaho native Carr, partnering with Boise State was a no-brainer. “Idaho is a wilderness state, and the folks at Boise state have a lot of talent and skill in natural resources,” he said. “It’s not as crazy as it seems for that knowledge to transfer to Mozambique.”
In fact, one of the first groups of Boise State researchers to begin working at the park is from the Intermountain Bird Observatory (IBO), best known for its efforts above Lucky Peak State Park focusing on migratory bird research and education.
Gorongosa may be the most diverse area in Africa for bird species, said Greg Kaltenecker, executive director of the IBO. “There’s a real gradient in the park, from rainforests on Mt. Gorongosa to the marshes below. In addition to many unique endemic birds, you’ll find raptors, songbirds and water birds from Europe and Asia.”
Last summer, Kaltenecker and outreach director Heidi Ware saw a couple of species in the park they’d never seen before: the green crested Livingston’s turaco, and the spectacular pin tailed paradise whydah.
For the Birds
The pair, along with research director Dr. Jay Carlisle, hope to set up tours in the park aimed at avid birders who would relish catching a glimpse of these and other unique species like a green-headed oriole found only on Mt. Gorongosa.
“No other park in Africa is focused on birds,” said Carlisle, who has organized several birding tours in Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and Cuba. “This would not only support the IBO by building a stronger following, it also would support the local tourism industry.”
Carr is enthusiastic about the partnership with IBO. “There’s nobody better at raptor biology than Boise State,” he said, noting that he would like Boise State to be “the largest university presence in the park.”
With an initial five-year research commitment from Carr, IBO researchers are looking at three projects to start.
Lake Urema quadruples in size during the rainy season and is an internationally significant breeding colony for seven or eight different species of water birds, with thousands of nests. Student and faculty researchers would monitor water levels throughout the year, linking that data to nesting activity. Because it’s relatively easy to identify so few bird species, local volunteers and park guides could help with data collection.
Local farmers burn large swaths of forest on Mt. Gorongosa so they can plant in the ash-enriched soil, resulting in significant deforestation. When those nutrients are depleted, the process is repeated. Without conservation efforts to stop or slow the practice, more than 50 percent of the rain forest has been destroyed, adversely affecting animal and bird populations. A long-term graduate project could focus on reforestation and documenting bird species as they return to the forest. In addition, Carr is modeling sustainable farming practices through a demo nursery showcasing shade coffee and native plants. Although it will take a couple of years for a profitable yield, it offers a viable option for local farmers.
Throughout Africa and Asia, old-world vultures are experiencing alarming population declines due to poisoning and shooting. When a carcass is poisoned to tempt large predators like lions, vultures eat the tainted flesh and also are affected. While the problem has been studied in other parts of the world, no vulture research has been conducted in Mozambique. Researchers would capture vultures and attach a radio transmitter to see where the vultures are going and how far they are moving. There already is a lion project in the park, so tracking lion kills and the vultures that follow would be a simple process.
In addition, the IBO is exploring educational experiences for local residents, including a version of the bird banding programs so popular at Lucky Peak. The hope is that involving the local population in meaningful ways will increase buy-in, which could lead to a reduction in poaching and other negative activity.
But Gorongosa offers more than just animal research. In 2010, park boundaries were expanded to include the majestic Mt. Gorongosa, with its spectacular limestone cliffs pocked with caves.
Dr. Matt Kohn, professor of geosciences, recently traveled to Gorongosa specifically for the chance to check out this geologic feature. Deposits in the stone could offer insight into ancient climates and help scientists learn more about Earth’s modern-day challenges.
“Decoding the isotope record in cave deposits could help us model how future climate change will influence different parts of the world,” Kohn said.
Isotopes refer to two or more forms of the same element that share equal numbers of protons, but unequal numbers of neutrons, causing them to break down at different speeds. Kohn compares two forms of carbon – carbon-12 and carbon-13 – to determine the amount of oxygen and hydrogen in the prehistoric atmosphere and how that has changed in relation to the current ecosystem.
And given the number of significant archaeological finds in nearby areas, including a large stash of bones from a new species named Homo naledi in South Africa, Kohn also believes it’s not too far-fetched to suppose Mozambique could be home to some of Earth’s earliest hominids.
Additional programs also are being explored in areas ranging from biology and public policy to social sciences.
“There are tremendous research opportunities at the park,” said Dr. Mark Rudin, vice president for research and economic development at Boise State. “We look forward to working with Greg and the team of internationally-renowned scientists he has assembled at the park to conserve and restore this remarkable treasure.”
Hometown: Battle Ground, Washington
Degree Program: Master of Science in Biology
Advisor: Dr. Jay Carlisle
Research: “Breeding Ecology and Migratory Connectivity of Long-billed Curlews”
As a field technician with the Intermountain Bird Observatory after earning her undergraduate degree in environmental science, Stephanie Coates banded songbirds and did populations surveys and nest monitoring with curlews. Intrigued by Boise State’s program that combined practical resource management skills with a bird she found fascinating, she began her master’s program in January 2015.
Curlews are shorebirds that live and mate in the grassland ecosystem. Those Coates studies at a site near Middleton migrate to the agricultural fields of the Gulf of California, but many winter along the coast.
The local site has seen a 90 percent decline in curlew population since the 1970s. Coates is focusing on the reasons for that decline, particularly human interference like off-highway vehicle use and target shooting.
As a young girl growing up in Mozambique not far from the borders of Gorongosa National Park, Dominique Gonçalves was fascinated by nature. Whether holding stray animals or nurturing interesting plants, she was intrigued by the diversity of life around her.
Despite the fact that few women in Mozambique become scientists, when it was time to decide on her future, she made a bold choice.
“I started to think, I would love to be a biologist. And I thought, why not? I was very good at it. So I applied for university and got in.”
With a bachelor’s degree and a lot of fieldwork on mammals under her belt, she returned home to pursue her dream of getting a job at Gorongosa. But the first two opportunities she was offered conflicted with other projects she was working on. Then came an interesting phone call.
The caller said, “We have an opportunity for you to study ornithology.” Halfway around the world in Idaho, of all places.
If she was interested, she would spend several months working as an intern at Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory site at Lucky Peak, studying the migration of songbirds and raptors such as hawks and owls by observing, capturing and banding birds. She then would bring her newfound skills back to Gorongosa.
Despite having no background in bird studies, Gonçalves was intrigued. “I love to learn new things,” she said.
Although it was very different from anything she was used to, coming to Idaho wasn’t intimidating, she said. “It was more exciting than anything. I knew that I would be living in a tent high up in the mountains, banding birds and monitoring migration. These are the same things we want to do in Gorongosa.”
What she wasn’t prepared for was the warm welcome she received from faculty and other students working at the site as the first student to come to Idaho as part of the Gorongosa agreement with Boise State. She also didn’t anticipate the interest from the scientific community as well as local and national media who have made the trek up the mountain to film and interview the shy young woman destined to be a role model for science-minded girls in Mozambique.
“I wasn’t expecting all this love. I was thinking I am just another person doing this with other young biologists. But when I arrived, a lot of people said, ‘It’s really good to have you here.’”
Now back in Mozambique, Gonçalves is applying her newfound skills at Gorongosa National Park, where she hopes to change minds about the importance of the bird population in the park.
Eventually, she plans to earn a master’s degree in ecosystem management and wildlife conservation, despite the fact that she’ll have to once again leave her home to pursue her dreams. “There is no program like that in Mozambique,” she said. “I will have to look for a program that matches my interests and go wherever that is.”