Gil Boese

Gil Boese

President and Founder of The Foundation of Wildlife Conservation, Inc. 501(c)3
President Emeritus, Zoological Society of Milwaukee
Founder of Birds Without Borders – Aves Sin Fronteras
Founder of Runaway Creek Nature Preserve (1998)
Expertise: Habitat Conservation, Neotropical Birds, African Guinea Baboon, Bonobo Conservation
Other Interests: Ernest Hemingway, Fly Fishing, Photography, Survival Tactics

How did you first discover the property that came to be Runaway Creek?

We had started Birds Without Borders in 1997 in Belize. As that program got underway it certainly got the attention of the local people and expatriots in conservation, particularly Sharon Matola who’s been a friend of ours since 1986. Sharon told me about the property. It was across the Sibun river from one of our study sites for Birds Without Borders. I started to go out there and review the site. Having been involved with private protected areas in Kenya, Ecuador, and Wisconsin I thought it was good fit for Birds Without Borders and the long term mission of the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation. I approched the board of the Zoological Society and after two years of negotiations we bought it.

Was the property in peril when you purchased it?

The previous owner was an individual that had to sell it. The only other bidders were Taiwanese businessmen who intended to clear the land to develop it as a subdivision and as a resource for lumber and limestone to build houses and other buildings.

What languages do you speak?

English, Pigeon Swahili, Pigion Spanish, Pigion French

What are some of your areas of expertise

Habitat Conservation, Neotropical Birds, African Guinea Baboon, Bonobo Conservation, Field Research in Zoology and Primatology, Developing Programs in Environmental Education, Research, Fundraising for Projects in the Conservation of Critical Habitats, Resource Management.

Can you talk more about your work in Bonobo primate conservation?

I knew the endangered status of the Bonobos and as Zoo Director I purchased a small colony of Bonobos from a zoo in Europe. Once you have the species in your Zoo you become obligated to do something for the species. Thus the Bonobo program started in 1987 and has continued to evolve and flourish since then.

What are your daily responsibilities as Founder and President of the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation and Birds Without Borders?

My responsibilities are to keep all the programs viable, to try to expand their impact on the various challenges to the environment. My other responsibilities include doing consultation work for Boese Ventures and to expand the educational programs and conservation venues under those umbrellas, including tourism. I communicate with donors. I run the foundation and am responsible for all the activities other than the financial bookwork.

Which of your responsibilities do you find most fulfilling?

My passion is working out in the field and being as close to field research as I can. The challenge is to do that without losing sight of the fact that I’m responsible for the organization and all of the people it employs. At my age I thought I’d be having a little more time to explore and become a more refined fishing guide, but we are at a very critical time in the environmental status in human history. It’s going to take a multi-faceted approach to keep many of these critical and necessary places viable. Some things I’d like to do have to be put on the back burner. But if i couldn’t get out in the field and work on these things and had to stay at the desk all the time it would become a very difficult task [laughing]. As you know I’m not much for being inside.

Why did you decide to work in conservation?

I think I was born to it. It seems like every phase of my life I was always on the side of the animals and the plants. I was raised with people who considered nature and the wilderness to be a part of their life; my grandparents and great uncles. My parents allowed me to explore the forest preserves of western Chicago as soon as I could get out and walk. In fact my first floral rehabilitation program was when i was four years old. It was in a rather low income dead-end street in Chicago ending in an ash pile at a blind person’s home. One of the residents had a big garden with plants which I thought were beautiful. The rest of our neighborhood was bare. So I pulled the flowers out and replanted them with my sand bucket and shovel in everyone’s yard. I guess I wanted everyone to have a plant. My father didn’t punish me but he told me it was the wrong thing to do because we had to repay the man. But he also negotiated that everyone could keep the plants [laughing].

What is your favorite part of working in conservation?

For me it’s the feeling that you may have had a part in saving this extraordinary gift to man. And to share it with people, both indigenous and visitor. Thirdly to bring young people into these areas in a way that they become committed to the fact that this is theirs and they become a part of the conservation ethic.

What does Runaway Creek represent to local conservation in Belize?

Runaway Creek serves as a model that shows people that you can manage a unique and important area in such a way that it can is a benefit to the total society that owns. The preserve gives back to the surrounding communities and beyond on many different levels of feedback. In doing so, Runaway Creek serves as a model that if you start preserving private fragments in this way in more than one place you can move it from arithmetic to geometric contribution toward saving habitat and more. Then there will be a chance that we can keep this globe intact. You’ve got to get the local people to understand what it is they have right under their feet and to work with them in such a way that they will not lose their indigenous culture and lifestyle within the parameters of technology. I’d love to see kids running through the jungles and also working on their laptops. I’d love to see them go to college but not forget where they came from. Those of us who do work with private protected areas, we have to do it right. Period.

What does Runaway Creek represent to the worldwide conservation movement?

All these small dots on the map – if you save one, that’s great. But if you save enough of these unique fragments in such a way that they can be linked together then you’ve created a system. If others do this in other countries and continents we may patch together a network of survival for the remaining species on our planet. We may patch together a network not only for the indigenous species, including man, but also we might be able to keep oxygen at critical levels for survival.

What is the mission of Runaway Creek

Runway Creek is to serve as a model for the proper management of areas of critical ecological importance. By virtue of its presence it is to not only contribute to the well being of the country and the globe on which is resides but also to reach out to the local people and provide them with opportunities and insights into nature to show them that it’s important to their everyday lives.

Did you have any turning point in your life or in your passion for nature and conservation?

I had many: cars, females, money, marriage, family [laughing], and then reality. That I could sustain a life in modern society by working in the profession is what I should have stuck with all the time. Many years back I was a construction engineer by trade. I’d chosen it for money, etc. It wasn’t the correct path for me but i certainly followed it for a while. Then teaching took me back to what I’d always wanted to be since a child, which is a naturalist. Whether it be Deputy Director of the Brookfield Zoo or Direcotr of the Milwuakee Zoo, or even as a college professor, I always considered myself a naturalist. It seems that animals and being outside were always critical to my life just as long as i can remember. Even in Chicago where I grew up my first five years there was a park I just loved to go to as much as possible. I could enter these mini wildernesses and just get lost. Once I started spending the summers living with my grandparents at Camp Lake in Wisconsin, those months became my treasures and I had a hard time staying in school. In my pre-teens I lived with my great aunt and uncle on a farm on the Menominee River. We were living off the land. I just loved it. I was so close to nature. And then when I did my first field study living on my own for four months, I just felt so close to nature and so apart of it. I could smell, see, hear, and live off so little but understand so much. I came to the point where I could see that this is what i wanted to do.

What are few of your most memorable days at Runaway Creek?

I think one of the most memorable days was the first time we walked through it. Just stepping twenty minutes off the coastal road and and we were into a wilderness that shut you off completely from everything but its presence and its challenge. The trails weren’t that well maintained. There was the give-and-take palms that sent spines into your arm; the cutting grass that could cut right through a rubber boot. It didn’t give to you without making you work for it. It was so beautiful and so wild. The discovery of Monkey Cave and all the artifacts and such… I just knew we were in another world. We climbed to the top of the Karst hills and we were literally sitting in the canopy with the monkeys. It was one of those rare moments when I realized this is it and now that we’ve got it we’ve got to save it… and to save it we’ve got to learn about it. Knowledge is the key to saving a property such as this.

What have you learned from the zoo business?

I feel that a zoo is an education facility that can become a conservation facility only if it brings its public to an understanding and belief that animals are important. It’s mission is to both teach them about the species and to show them that they will only be able to survive if their habitats are preserves. If the animals become simply an amusement or attraction then the zoo has failed.

Do you have any final thoughts

Runaway Creek has to be a symbol of the challenges that are being faced around the world. There are so many unique properties all over and there are people struggling to save them. Someone or some people have to step forward to try to save these properties and understand the meaning of all this to our lives. if people can identify with these critical fragments and help save them then we may be indeed saving the world. It’s like anything else; if ten people start and thousands join you can have a unique success and a global return. What happens in the Sahara effects us in Wisconsin.


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rainforest preserve and living history