How a Few Adventurous Philanthropists Are Changing the Face of Conservation
Two months later, I visited Garamba and Virunga National Parks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both of which had received significant funding from the Illinois-based philanthropist Howard Buffett as well as sizable donations from a high-profile philanthropist who visited the parks days before I arrived. In Virunga I was guided by Kate Doty, a managing director at the San Francisco–based Geographic Expeditions—another specialist in organizing trips for donors.
Also tapping into this market is Will Jones of the UK-based Journeys by Design. Jones, who has guided the likes of Ralph Lauren, launched Wild Philanthropy Travel in late 2015 to complement his existing safari business. Like Lorentz, he has seen more customers asking to travel deeper into the issues at play in order to give back on a scale that makes a difference to entire ecosystems, not just specific charities. But while Lorentz has worked mostly with large nongovernmental organizations, Jones pairs philanthropists with private conservation projects. Using an intimate network of contacts on the ground, he looks for tracts of land where communities can be enabled to protect the wildlife. In making an investment, the funder can also be a beneficiary by enjoying access to—and even building private homes in—areas other travelers can’t easily visit.
There are other benefits too. The business is set up as a members’ club, with three tiers of annual fees ranging from $25,000 to $100,000. With membership, any trip booked to conservation areas Wild Philanthropy is engaged with is charged at cost. In addition, all the membership funds are channeled back to support the company’s core projects.
When I first heard about Wild Philanthropy, which has had a few false starts as Jones finessed the model, I questioned whether the club was as much about conservation as exclusivity. So Jones invited me to join him in Ntakata, a remote forest in western Tanzania, to see the model firsthand. The roadless forest is home to the Watongwe, or the Tongwe people, who consider eastern long-haired chimpanzees to be sacred. (The Watongwe identified apes as humankind’s direct ancestors long before modern scientists did.) To elevate our safari experience—there was nothing luxurious about traveling by bike and foot, camping, and eating bowls of rice—Jones pulled Roland Purcell out of retirement from his rambling estate in Ireland, where he had settled after nearly two decades in the African bush.
Purcell, who is of Irish and Australian descent, left his job as a fine-art auctioneer in Nairobi in 1987 to work with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. In 1989 he built Greystoke Mahale, which remains one of the most exquisite lodges in Africa. The lodge is located on the white-sand beaches of Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika, where Purcell lived for 17 years with his wife, Zoe, and two children. Occasionally he guided at a fee of $1,000 a day, when everyone else in the industry was charging less than half that rate. So when Jones told me he had struck a deal with his old friend to guide me through a hidden forest, which borders the same lake where Greystoke Mahale still thrives, I started to believe he might be offering something off the map. We did the same trip, less a helicopter, that Purcell is leading for Wild Philanthropy members next year—with the intention of locking in a million-dollar endowment to support the forest’s protection in perpetuity.
“Just the 5 percent annual interest on this sum will generate the $50,000 needed to run the entire ranger force,” said Purcell, who cofounded the Tongwe Trust in 2002. “The forest doesn’t need much: some bikes, binoculars, uniforms, and salaries of $100 a month per ranger for a force of 18.”
The 187-square-mile, village-owned reserve suffers from the slash-and-burn incursions of Burundian refugees, as well as poachers. Purcell introduced us to the issues, but also to the forest’s lures. We took shade under the flying buttresses of vast 200-year-old trunks. We spent time with the rangers, who carry not weapons but notepads and pens to record the pant-hoots of chimpanzees. We followed the paths elephants had made through thick bush. We lay down and rested by a river close to one of the Watongwe’s sacred groves to listen to the apes.
It was a moment of being in wild nature that returned to me a few days later when I was flying in the R44 helicopter operated by the Friedkin Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization bankrolled by the Texas-based Friedkin family. The Friedkins, who have 5,245 square miles of wilderness under lease in Tanzania, spend more than $3 million of private funds every year on community development and antipoaching, including helicopters, microlites, and staff. We were flying in Moyowosi—not far from Purcell’s stomping grounds, on Lake Tanganyika’s shores—hovering over a gallery forest encircled by swamp with a canopy as thick as Ntakata’s.