Lions, gorillas and elephants: Paul Allen opens checkbook for wildlife conservation
Better known for local philanthropy and cutting-edge science, the Microsoft co-founder has been quietly funding wildlife-conservation projects in Africa.
Seattle Times science reporter
When it comes to philanthropy, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is best known for supporting scientific research and civic and arts organizations in the Pacific Northwest.
But over the past several years, Allen also has been quietly bankrolling a range of wildlife-conservation projects in Africa. Now, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation plans to step up funding for similar work, starting with a $1 million grant to the Jane Goodall Institute to help protect gorillas and chimpanzees.
“This is going to be a major initiative going forward for the foundation,” said science officer Kathy Richmond.
The foundation is also beginning to “dip its toe” into ocean science, which will be another priority area in the future, Richmond added.
Allen’s philanthropic giving has always been guided largely by his eclectic interests, and the new focus is no different. The software guru became enchanted with Africa through his travels there, and has said one of his main regrets is not having visited the continent earlier in his life.
“It’s one of the most special places in the world for him,” Richmond said.
Allen owns three tourist lodges in Africa, including one in Botswana’s Okavongo Delta, that collectively host about 6,000 visitors a year.
Since 2008, Allen and his foundation have donated nearly $10 million to African charities and projects. Most of the money went to wildlife-conservation projects, like protecting lions in the deserts of Namibia and developing a migratory corridor for elephants in Tanzania.
His largest African grant, $3 million, was for a project that combines conservation with the type of cutting-edge science Allen finds fascinating: analyzing the scent markers left by wild dogs, with the hope of developing chemical mimics that could be used to steer the animals away from human settlements.
But Allen’s fledgling Africa portfolio also includes a few projects of the type that are more typically funded by his old partner, Bill Gates. They include tsetse-fly control in Zambia, drought relief in East Africa and girls’ education in Rwanda.
Wildlife conservation is not an area that gets a lot of attention or money from major philanthropies, so it’s noteworthy when one of the world’s richest people takes an interest, said Maria DiMento, assistant editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
“I think some people get the impression that he does things on a whim, but I think he really looks at something for a long time and makes a decision about whether or not he can actually help,” she said.
The new grant to Jane Goodall’s institute will help researchers in the Democratic Republic of Congo complete a survey of a rare gorilla subspecies that may be on the verge of extinction.
The Grauer’s gorilla lives in the eastern part of the country, an area that has been rife with conflict for nearly two decades. The fighting has diminished, but the primates are still threatened by poaching and illegal mining, said primatologist Debby Cox, technical adviser for the institute’s Africa programs.
A survey 20 years ago put their population at 15,000, but fewer than 5,000 appear to inhabit the area today.
A good census is vital to protecting the apes, Cox said. “Once we have that, we’ll know where we need to put our biggest effort for conservation.”
The Allen grant also will fund gorilla sanctuaries, boost anti-poaching patrols and help equip rangers with GPS-enabled phones and tablets so they can log both gorilla sightings and illegal mines.
“It will make a huge difference,” Cox said. “The reality is that without this money, and without gaining the knowledge of where the gorillas are and how to protect them, we could lose this species in the next 10 years.”
The foundation is also making a small start in oceanic research. The Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge, launched earlier this year, is soliciting ideas for reducing the impact of ocean acidification — a change in ocean chemistry caused by the same carbon-dioxide emissions responsible for global warming.
The winner of the competition will get $10,000. But the real prize is the foundation’s pledge to consider the most promising ideas for continued research funding, Richmond said.
Since 1990, the Allen Foundation has given away $454 million, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. That regional emphasis won’t change, said media-relations manager Christina Siderius. “There’s no doubt that Paul and (his sister) Jody are committed to helping in their own backyard.”
Allen, who has pledged to give away most of his fortune, has stepped up his donations in recent years. Independent of his foundation, he gave $400 million to found the Allen Institute and support its ambitious efforts to unravel brain function.
In 2010, he gave Washington State University its biggest charitable gift: $26 million for a center to study global animal health and the way diseases spread from animals to humans.
With a fortune estimated at $15 billion, Allen is 53rd on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people. In 2012, he ranked fourth on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of America’s most generous donors.
Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org