Africa in Our Lives: Rich Beilfuss

When he’s not playing unicycle hockey or running marathons, you can probably find Rich Beilfuss in the field working with one of sub-Saharan Africa’s six species of cranes. Dr. Beilfuss is the President & CEO of the International Crane Foundation (ICF), an organization headquartered in Baraboo, WI that works worldwide to conserve cranes and the ecosystems, watersheds, and flyways on which they depend. He talks to the African Studies Program about his fieldwork in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, his experience developing the ICF’s Africa Program, and the partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa that make the ICF’s work possible.

“In Africa and around the world, [cranes’] landscapes are shared with people, and people must be part of their conservation solutions.” -Rich Beilfuss (submitted photo)

Field of study: PhD Wetland Ecology; MSc Civil and Environmental Engineering, MSc Water Resources Management; BSc International Economics
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin for 32 years (born in Chicago, IL)

What brought you to Madison?

I moved to Madison in 1985 to study Nepali in preparation for a year abroad in Nepal. I returned to Madison for graduate school following my year in Nepal, and first connected with the International Crane Foundation starting in 1988. I have since worked with ICF for most of the past 30 years, except the period when I moved to Mozambique to work for the restoration of Gorongosa National Park.

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I am an avid unicycle rider and compete in marathon distance races and play unicycle hockey and basketball.

What sparked your interest in Africa?

I first visited Africa (Nigeria) in 1992, after several years living and working in South/Southeast Asia. I was immediately captivated by the warm people, diverse landscapes full of wildlife, and water management challenges in northern Nigeria, and felt I wanted to contribute to solutions. In 1993, I co-organized a conference on wetlands in Maun, Botswana, attended by representatives from 19 different countries in Africa and developed friendships with colleagues across the continent. From that time forward, I have worked in Africa every year, often for very extended periods of time and relocated to live there on two occasions. The spark remains the same for me—the people, the land, and the challenges that need creative, collaborative solutions.

How did the four years you spent at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique shape your work today?

Living at Gorongosa National Park with my family was a tremendous experience. Prior to moving to Gorongosa, I did my PhD in the nearby Zambezi Delta of Mozambique, so I already had more than 10 years’ experience on the ground in this area before taking the position of Director of Scientific Services for the park. Gorongosa National Park (and the Zambezi Delta) were nearly destroyed during the prolonged civil war, and we were there to rebuild all aspects of the park infrastructure and management from the ground up, restore the beautiful landscape for wildlife, and help people improve their lives. We did a lot of frontline ecological work–we reintroduced wildebeest, buffalo, elephants, and other species, conducted managed fires to reduce the impact of wildfires, controlled the spread of invasive species, and monitored hydrology, vegetation, and wildlife. We also worked with the surrounding communities to engage them in supporting the park in exchange for employment in the park and associated tourism, as well as new health clinics and schools. The Mozambican team we worked with was exceptional—many dedicated Mozambicans who lived under the terror of the civil war were back at the park to help its recovery. Some were leaders with a lifetime of experience to share, others were youngsters from local schools seeking mentorship and opportunities for advancement. I especially learned the value of getting to know a place deeply to find root causes to problems and solutions—it many seem easy for consultants to whisk into places and offer quick solutions to problems, but we found that lasting solutions required a deep investment of time and creativity to get “right” – if ever.

Rich and his colleague in the field in Mozambique. (Submitted photo)

What are some of your favorite memories from your time in Mozambique?

I loved having my family living at the park with me. My wife Katie and I worked long hours and raised our two young boys at the park, but every day seemed like an adventure—seeing giant buffalo and elephants darted with tranquilizers for veterinary operations, collecting crocodile teeth, battling extreme wildfires, conducting night drives to census civets, genets, aardvarks, and other nocturnal wildlife, and taking care to avoid lions, spitting cobras, and black mambas as they moved through our camp. Our home “lawn mower” was a wild warthog. It was an incredibly rich experience for our young children especially.

Tell us a little bit about the work of the International Crane Foundation (ICF).

The International Crane Foundation works worldwide to conserve cranes and the ecosystems, watersheds, and flyways on which they depend. Cranes are revered in many, many cultures and nations around the world, they are large and conspicuous, they migrate across political boundaries, and they require healthy environmental conditions to survive. In Africa and around the world, their landscapes are shared with people, and people must be part of their conservation solutions. So cranes are great ambassadors for sustainable water, land, and livelihoods. The wetlands and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa support six of the world’s fifteen species of cranes, including resident Grey Crowned, Black Crowned, Wattled, and Blue Cranes, and wintering Demoiselle and Eurasian Cranes. African cranes face many threats fueled by rapid population growth and extreme poverty in the region. Endangered Grey Crowned Cranes, for example, are in serious decline due to capture for illegal trade, compounded by loss of vital wetlands in the agricultural landscapes of East and Southern Africa, while Vulnerable Wattled Cranes are at risk from large dams and floodplain degradation. Our innovative conservation programs employ diverse strategies for saving cranes and some of the most important wetlands on the Africa continent.

Tell us about your experience developing ICF’s Africa Program.

As I mentioned above, in 1993, I co-organized a conference on wetlands in Maun, Botswana, attended by representatives from 19 different countries in Africa and developed friendships with colleagues across the continent. Following that meeting, I decided to focus on a few strategic places where I thought there was great need and where we (ICF) could have a strong impact. Much of my work was in the Zambezi River basin of southern Africa, where I focused on environmental flows (strategic water management) and land management for cranes, other wildlife, and livelihoods. I worked extensively in Mozambique and Zambia. I also worked with colleagues in East Africa to develop a program for Endangered Grey Crowned Cranes. The Grey Crowned Crane is the national bird of Uganda, is in the center of Uganda’s national flag and Coat of Arms, and the national soccer team is called the cranes. So that was a great place to start in East Africa. But the wetlands cranes depend on are disappearing rapidly as people try to eek out a living. We also developed programs in West Africa to focus on the Black Crowned Crane, which is in serious decline. Everywhere we started programs and projects, we focused on places where we could build strong local partnerships and engage in issues that we have expertise and experience in—especially water management, invasive species control, and conservation-friendly livelihoods for people.

How does the ICF work with local partners in sub-Saharan Africa?

All of our work is in partnership. We have a broad co-partnership across Africa with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (based in South Africa), and we work with local NGOs and community groups in every country where we work—Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique, Zambia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Senegal, and elsewhere. Some of our most interesting partnerships are with teachers and their after school groups and local pastors who mobilize communities to take action for cranes and the sustainable use of the wetlands they depend on. We try to help these communities find alternative livelihoods to farming wetlands, such a bee-keeping, marketing papyrus products, developing local tourism employment, farming fish ponds, and other initiatives. We also try to help local NGOs build up their capacity—sometimes bringing people to ICF in Baraboo for training, sometimes supporting partners for graduate studies or more in-depth training. Last year, for example, we brought over seven colleagues from Zambia for intensive training at ICF and at Louisiana State University, where they learned wetland management skills. Truly none of our work would be possibly without partnerships.

Tell us about one of the ICF’s current Africa-related initiatives.

We have many great projects in Africa, but our work in the big floodplains of southern Africa is most rewarding for me, especially as I feel we are having a deep, positive impact on these landscapes. We have a large project in the Kafue Flats of Zambia. Our goal is to restore the vast floodplain for threatened Wattled Cranes—one of the largest flying birds in the world—as well as many species of large mammals and waterbirds, and to do so by engaging the local community in livelihood improvement activities. We are working with the national water authorities and electric company to improve water conditions on the flats through managed outflows from upstream Itezhitezhi Dam, hiring local communities to remove the invasive shrub mimosa pigra from the floodplain, working with wildlife authorities to reduce legal and illegal hunting of wildlife, especially the endemic Kafue lechwe that is in serious decline. We are helping local communities set up their first-ever bank accounts to manage the money they gain from the project, and providing access to loans for entrepreneurial activities. The conservation challenges in Kafue Flats, as elsewhere in Africa, are immense and increasing, but I remain an optimist given the incredible talent and perseverance I see across the continent.

To learn more about the International Crane Foundation, visit the organization’s website or its headquarters in Baraboo, WI.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.