This Alum Must Really Love Rhinos
Phil Carter, AS'86, gets up close to document the fight to save African wildlife.
This is a story about a successful man who went looking for adventure, and wound up changing his life. Along the way, he learned more than many of us will ever know about humility, human nature, and the unexpected realities of the developing world.
While serving as photographer in residence last year for two conservancies in Africa, Phil Carter, AS’86, also learned two important life lessons. One: It’s never too late to have a second act. Two: Don’t blink when you’re photographing a 400-pound male lion 12 feet away.
As a vice president and financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, Carter provides clients with investment advice. But whenever he can spring free, he uses his skill as a photographer to publicize causes he believes in.
During those Africa adventures, he documented the tribes and endangered animals of northern Kenya. There were times when the subject of his photograph wasn’t the most endangered species in the vicinity, like when he got that close-up of a lion.
“On another occasion, I was sitting in our Jeep checking the latest shots on my camera when I felt a presence,” he recalls. “I looked up and saw a huge bull elephant looking through the sunroof. He could have knocked the truck over easily, and they often do. I started talking to him, and I figured I was dead. But he was just as curious about me as I was about him.”
“AMERICANS WANT EVERYTHING SANITIZED. AFRICA IS NOT CAPE COD.”
Carter has been free to pursue his passion not only because technology allows it, but also because his employer believes that philanthropic work is good for the company as well as for its employees.
“Morgan Stanley is very charitably inclined,” says Carter. “I work for a top-flight firm that actually encourages me to log in my volunteer work in Africa and the states.”
One of Carter’s causes is shooting for The Doe Fund, a New York City organization that supports people with histories of homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse. In 2011, he was asked by a Canadian conservancy to document deforestation in Quebec.
It was the gig that changed his life. Witnessing how shrinking forests endanger wildlife “made everything fall into place for me,” he says.
“Quebec has one of the largest boreal forests, and areas that were inaccessible 20 years ago are being clear cut now,” says Carter. “The woodland caribou, a huge, beautiful animal that used to be widespread, is now almost extinct because of the lack of lichen-rich ground cover.”
Once bitten by the conservation bug, he got the itch to go to Africa. Thing is, you can’t just wander into restricted areas and start photographing without permission.
“I contacted the Northern Rangelands Trust thinking I could persuade them to allow me in to camp,” he says.
Being an organization in need, it made a smart counteroffer: to join the staff and use his photographs to explore the competing land needs of local farmers and threatened wildlife.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll do two weeks.’ They convinced me to stay for three,” he says.
What sealed the deal was that a Northeastern classmate—a Kenyan national who knew people in the organization—vouched for him.
Carter worked at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a 55,000-acre former game reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that’s part of the Northern Rangelands Trust. The trust supports communities that have set aside land for wildlife conservation in northern Kenya. It’s home to some of the rarest species on earth, including Grevy’s zebras and black rhinos; it also serves as a safe refuge for elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, and other species as they migrate through their natural range, which extends from Mount Kenya to Ethiopia.
Anti-poaching efforts help reduce the number of elephants and rhinos that are killed. In addition, Lewa supports 21 schools in the neighboring areas through infrastructure and curriculum development, student empowerment programs, and teacher and conservation training.
“BY GIVING SELFLESSLY HERE, YOU GET BACK UNIMAGINABLE DIVIDENDS.”
One of the major narratives that has emerged as Kenya’s population surges, he says, is the effort of these conservancies to preserve the wildlife balanced with the herders’ need for land and water for their cattle and crops.
“Kenya’s population has tripled since 1980, while the amount of arable land has been reduced due to drought and desertification,” Carter says. “Herders see these 90,000-acres of privately owned reserves as an unimaginable indulgence.”
In one case near Lewa, he says, pastoralists broke down fences, and now 30,000 head of cattle range on the land illegally alongside the native game. “The sad epilogue to the story is that the land had been earmarked for conservation.”
Another problem is that the security breach leaves rhinos, elephants, and all other game vulnerable. “It’s heartbreaking, because poachers will simply drive in with AK-47s and shoot what they want—in many cases to order.”
Carter lived in a safari tent in the middle of the game reserve. “A 4,000-pound black rhino named Elvis hung around the bathhouse,” he says. Giraffes, Cape buffalo, and all sorts of wild animals shared the area, which had only one path through the camp.
“It was the equivalent of walking from Speare to Stetson West at Northeastern. And everything used the same path—humans and animals. You just don’t go out alone at night.”
Carter also worked in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where rangers accompanied him through the 90,000 acres to document the tribes and wildlife.
Photographing the village life of indigenous people had its own challenges. Some of the locals, he says, believe that pictures can steal their souls, so he was accompanied by a fixer, a trusted person who helped overcome the residents’ natural suspicion.
He found that the quickest way to get results was to photograph the children, whose natural curiosity about the “mzungu” (white person) gave him the springboard to photograph the whole family once the mother saw the images of her laughing children.
“Maternal pride is the ace up your sleeve that works everywhere,” says Carter.
Technology allows him to balance the demands of his profession with his second-life passion.
“Africa is eight or nine hours ahead, so when I get a call, it’s often still early back home. I’ve already spent a full day in the bush shooting different assignments,” says Carter. “And with Wi-Fi, I get crystal-clear conversations with clients while hyena are walking by.”
Next up, Carter is headed to Congo-Brazzaville for two weeks as a guest of the Aspinall Foundation. He’ll photograph lowland gorillas, many of which were raised by the foundation and rereleased into the wild, and a rare group of red colobus monkeys, which are not usually found in that area. Later this year, he plans to travel to Fernan-Vaz Lagoon in Gabon to document its lowland gorilla population.
When he retires from Morgan Stanley, Carter knows what the future holds for him. The reason he’s so sure? After seeing his photographs, an American family donated $10,000 to a remote Kenyan school he documented in need of basic school supplies.
“That’s an impossible amount of money for these villagers,” says Carter.
“I’ll do this full time when I retire,” he says. “Americans don’t get Africa. Sure, there are cobras, AIDS, and Zika. But what you get in return is falling asleep each night to the sounds of pure wildness. It’s unmistakable. It’s evocative.”
But there’s something more important. “I’ve made some great new friends every time I’m on assignment, which shows just how small the world is and how much we all have in common.”