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John Gwynne: Bronx Zoo Designer, Conservationist

• February 23, 2010 • 5:00 AM

A Wonking Class Hero profile of a global environmental innovator.

When he was 9, John Gwynne visited the Bronx Zoo, where for the first time he saw a gorilla, in a claustrophobic cage, in the manner of zoos in the 1950s. The mournful-looking creature impressed him; the confinement saddened him. But Gwynne was also fascinated by a huge cockroach wandering across the floor of the cage. He’d never seen anything like it. Before his 15th birthday, Gwynne told his parents that a good present would be having a pond dug on the family’s land on a rural peninsula in southern Rhode Island. “I wanted to create an environment,” he says.

So his parents hired someone to come in with a backhoe for a day and dig a hole. Gwynne’s pond project wasn’t successful at first — “I learned that you can’t build a pond on subsoil” — but he eventually got it right. Now the water hole has frogs, birds, cattails and the other accoutrements of a healthy New England pond. Since then, Gwynne has developed an astonishing garden/forest environment on the property, including bamboo and other plants often associated with more southerly climes. The garden — which he developed with the help of his partner, Mikel Folcarelli — was featured in a pricey book, The New Garden Paradise, by the editors of House & Garden.

And since then, Gwynne has become an international player, dealing with scientists, artists, national leaders, big-businessmen and high-society types while working for the Bronx Zoo and its parent entity, the Wildlife Conservation Society. He’s not only designed some of the zoo’s signature exhibits, he’s participated in the society’s efforts at landscape-scale conservation around the world, helping to publicize a sweeping plan for 13 new national parks that will comprise more than 10 percent of the small African country of Gabon.

When in New York, Gwynne works out of a spare, sunlit, uncluttered modernist office overlooking the woods at the Bronx Zoo. A thin man with big blue eyes and an infectious, leprechaun-like grin, he has a passion for his work that comes out in the swoops of his voice, during which an upper-crust drawl (with the word “well” extended beyond its normal length, ala Thurston Howell III) can be punctuated by whoops of laughter. He sometimes assumes a mock-resigned, arms-crossed posture that recalls the late comedian Jack Benny. He is also a fine teller of gossip, though the gossip is very rarely malicious.

But he’s not one to promote himself — indeed, he seems mortified by the public praise that his admirers seem eager to heap on him. “He’s got the vision of an artist and an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals,” says Charlotte Frieze, a New York-based landscape architect and the former garden editor of House & Garden. “And I’ve seen him create habitats gratifying to both wildlife and humans.” Lee White, a former scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, put it more simply, saying that he’s “John’s biggest fan.”

Gwynne went to Princeton, majoring in fine arts as an undergrad, and then to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he got a master’s degree in landscape architecture. He’s also studied ornithology and painting. Looking for a job in 1975, he discovered that Providence needed help with its down-at-the-heels zoo. There was federal money for the hiring of design and exhibition staff, and Gwynne eventually became chief of exhibitions.

The Roger Williams Park Zoo gained national attention as Gwynne and his colleagues remade it, creating entirely new settings, such as its African plains exhibit that let visitors see the animals in habitats similar to those where the species had evolved. Gwynne says his interest in landscape design, animals and the environment came together just as Western zoos were seeking a more holistic approach to presenting animals, one that veered away from enclosing animals in small steel-and-concrete cages. The new settings were not only visually richer for zoo visitors; they were also more educational. Visitors didn’t just get animals; they got quick lessons in environments that had, over eons, shaped the animals’ appearance and behavior.

As the Reagan administration progressed, federal money became scarce, and Gwynne was happy in 1982 to get a call from the Wildlife Conservation Society. The group was looking for someone who had put together natural-habitat exhibits, who had extensive zoological knowledge and who had a deep academic and practical knowledge of art and design — as well as an amiable personality and the political toughness necessary for the cooperative work of a nonprofit environment. The society hired him to work in the graphics and exhibitions department of the Bronx Zoo, a department that he eventually came to lead.

The Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. (Bob Sacha)

From that position, Gwynne oversaw design of the zoo’s celebrated Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit. Primates are among the zoo’s biggest draws — chalk it up, perhaps, to human narcissism — and Gwynne and his colleagues sought to replicate as much as possible the gorillas’ environs in Central Africa. Visitors see the gorillas up close via windows in a dark passageway, the gorillas going about their business in a usually bright, woodsy, open-air setting that has an ingenious landscape architecture that makes the space seem much larger than it is. Although the exhibit is meant to diminish the impact of humans, sometimes a mother gorilla will bring a baby up to the window to show visitors.

Over the years, Gwynne developed an international reputation for combining highly unusual — even eccentric — landscape design, deep knowledge of animals, plants and ecology, and a finely tuned emotional intelligence in a way that let him get expensive, complicated, even implausible projects done without making enemies. Beyond his work at the Bronx Zoo, he traveled to many nations, working on Wildlife Conservation Society projects, and the books he illustrated on birds of several countries were well reviewed.

Lee White, a former scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. (Rob Ross)

Eventually, Gwynne’s work caught the attention of two colleagues — Wildlife Conservation Society scientists Lee White and J. Michael Fay, who had been quietly promoting large-scale conservation in Africa, particularly in the sparsely populated, former French colony of Gabon, where the Wildlife Conservation Society had been doing research since 1985. (Among many other things, the society had discovered a population of 60,000 forest elephants there.) In the late 1990s, then-President and corrupt dictator Omar Bongo and others in the Gabon establishment realized that their country needed to compensate for declining oil and gas revenues, on which the ruling class had been rather lazily prospering for decades, with remarkably little of the money finding its way to the numerous poor.

In 1999, the government asked White to make a survey of sites that might be conserved, based on their biodiversity. Soon thereafter, Fay began his highly publicized “Megatransect” of the vast Congo Basin, dramatizing the area’s natural heritage for the international conservation community and Gabon’s elite. The trip resulted in one series in National Geographic magazine and another on U.S. public television, in which an often-muddy Fay was seen during 455 days of hiking across some 1,240 miles of the basin to survey its ecological and environmental status.

Beyond the enormous quantity of forest elephants, Fay found that Gabon was host to a wealth of threatened species, including gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, hippos and other animals that people in the zoo business call “charismatic” — meaning, among other things, that people will pay to see them. It seemed that Gabon was (as conservation groups encouraged President Bongo and other local movers and shakers to call it) “an Eden” that might attract wealthy ecotourists and serve as a model for conservation in the developing world.

Encouraged by Wildlife Conservation Society scientists, Bongo pleasantly stunned wildlife enthusiasts around the world when he announced in 2002 that his government was creating 13 national parks comprising almost 11 percent of the country. Scientific work by the society and other environmental organizations had determined the sites; no other nation besides ecotourist-rich Costa Rica had made such a commitment to habitat preservation.

But Gabon lacked the information infrastructure to explain what lay in these partly mysterious tracts to the investment community or to the public. So Gwynne and several colleagues made a half dozen trips to the country, where they toured most of the new parks by boat, plane and muddy trail, gathering information on zoological, botanical, geological and cultural wonders.

A Vision for Gabon: Tourism, Parks and Sustainable Development in the 21st Century (PDF) may be one of the strangest environmental books ever published. Developed by Gwynne and his creative crew, it’s a tome that aims to lure travel-business investors and tourists to the wonders of Gabon.

Measuring 17 inches wide and 12 inches high, weighing in at 10 pounds, the book is a compendium of large-type text, vivid photographs, maps, drawings and imaginative — even fanciful — conceptions of what, for example, the eco-lodges in Gabon’s new national parks would look like. Gwynne and his colleagues see these little hotels as crucial to the ecotourism that they hope will help save Gabon from being strip-mined. But in the main, the book is focused on what ecotourists will find, from shy gorillas deep in the Gabonese forest to “surfing hippos” on the nation’s delightfully underdeveloped coast and on to creations of ancient and modern tribal cultures. The book is part popular science, part real-estate promotion, part prose poem, part coffee-table decoration and part corporate annual report.

To produce the book, the society’s management drew on architects, interior designers, painters, sculptors, horticulturists and others in New York. But Gwynne was the central aesthetic force, just as White and Fay were the central force in nailing down the science and gaining political support for the Gabonese conservation plan. (In fact, White is now a Gabonese citizen and was recently named to run the country’s national parks.)

The Wildlife Conservation Society and President Bongo made sure that the top people in his government and social circle looked at the book closely. “They vacationed in Europe and had virtually no idea of their own wildlife,” Gwynne noted. David Quammen, who has reported on Gabon for National Geographic, put it another way: “The presidential palace was more distant from the rain forest than is the Bronx Zoo.”

Gabon President Ali Ben Bongo

Bongo died last summer. His son Ali Ben Bongo — who recently became the new president, after a disputed election — learned of the Gabon viper, the world’s heaviest, with the longest fangs and the highest venom yield of any snake, from the conservation society. One of the late president’s daughters, Yamilee, now a New Yorker, had never seen a gorilla until she visited the Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo.

But will the park plan work?

We won’t know for a long time. The world recession has sharply slowed development in ecotourism, and the corruption and inefficiency of Gabon’s government continues to pose obstacles. President Ali Ben Bongo has indicated that he plans to appoint professional technocrats as government ministers. Still, even in the best of times, the ambition of the Gabonese conservation plan would be daunting.

As Gwynne notes, it is harder to see animals in the jungle than on, say, East Africa’s vast plains. The Gabon plan will try to “part the wall of green” by taking ecotourists to clearings created by animals as they seek minerals, or water or prey. In doing so, he and his colleagues hope to spark an international passion for rain-forest tourism, encouraging the conservation of rain forests everywhere. Gabonese and Wildlife Conservation Society officials hope that 100,000 visitors a year, most of them affluent, will eventually come to see the nation’s heretofore little-known wonders. Within the next few years, a plausible number might be 20,000 — if things go well.

“At this point perhaps the notion of ecotourism is more driven from the supplier side, in anticipation of a ‘greener’ consumer demand,” says Candy Adriance, owner of New England-based Yankee Travel, which arranges adventure tours. And in Gabon, the ecotourism sector will face competition from more traditional businesses, including logging, not to mention the constant threat of corruption that could drive ecotourism investors away.

Whatever happens in Gabon, Gwynne and his colleagues have come a long way from a New York zoo where animals were, until the past couple of decades, held in claustrophobic captivity. The Bronx Zoo is, of course, still an artificial environment, but Gwynne and company believe that many of the scientifically based design, public-education and advertising lessons that have animated the zoo’s modernization can be used to preserve ecologically precious landscapes around the world. “We want to get people away from the idea that the only way for developing nations to survive is by consuming nature,” Gwynne told me. “We want to encourage people to make tourism an alternative.”

He and others in the Wildlife Conservation Society are now working on hugely ambitious land- and species-conservation projects in such ecologically rich but politically problematic places as Rwanda, Madagascar, Brazil and Afghanistan. The success or failure of the Gabon program may determine how much international support these other projects draw.

Gwynne recently retired as vice president/creative director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, but he still works on its foreign projects. His mission for the next few years, he says, is to continue to make the society’s information and expertise available to developing nations with major conservation needs. “Many people are under the illusion that only rich people can afford conservation,” Gwynne told me. “But poor people don’t want to cut down forests, either.”

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Robert Whitcomb
Robert Whitcomb is a vice president and the editorial page editor of The Providence Journal and member secretary of the Aga Khan University Media Thinking Group. Previously, he was the financial editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris and an editor and writer for The Wall Street Journal. He has contributed to many publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek and The Weekly Standard. Whitcomb has edited several books and is co-author of Cape Wind (2007), a history of the Nantucket Sound wind-farm controversy. He lives in Providence, R.I.

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