Stephen Gold, a San Francisco contractor, and Henry Cundill, a recent business school graduate got to know each other while working out at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Cundill was still completing his studies in sustainable development and renewable energy at Presidio Graduate School when Yossi Offenberg, a membership representative at the community center, introduced him to Gold.
Before long, they assembled a solar-powered hatchery and incubator being sent to Niger to help the endangered North African Desert ostrich.
“One thing led to another and the next thing you know you’re neck deep,” Cundill told me laughing. “We’d meet at the construction site to go over plans, then at 4 pm we’d be at the gym together still talking about it.”
As a volunteer with the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Network, Gold assembles solar energy systems for conservation teams working in remote corners of the world. Teams studying and protecting animals such as the extremely rare snow leopard, and other endangered wildlife, use the solar energy systems Gold provides for their daily needs, research and communication.
“Conservationists have to live with the animals away from people and electricity,” he told me. “My overwhelming principle has been to make living comfortable, so conservationists don’t have to worry about energy production.”
Gold has assembled 46 solar energy systems for projects in 10 countries all by persuading companies, like oil and gas giant BP, to donate necessary parts. The Ethiopian wolf, the Tenkile in Papau New Guinea, and the Andean mountain bear are only some of the animals benefiting from Gold’s determination.
But conservationists working to save the North African Desert ostrich needed a bigger project. Hunting and habitat depletion has devastated the bird across its historic range. There are very few breeding pairs in existence now and virtually none in captivity.
To increase the number of ostriches, conservationists decided to create a facility to incubate and hatch eggs. In the wild, ostriches lay a clutch of eggs about three times a year and approximately 5 percent hatch. If conservationists could improve the mortality rate and help 95 percent of the eggs hatch, then they could begin repopulating the species quickly.
It’s not easy to assemble a solar energy system for a field station, incubator and hatchery, and get all the materials to the project site in Niger though. Gold wanted help, and Cundill assisted in budgeting, planning, designing and trouble-shooting.
In July, the pair traveled from San Francisco to Niger – partially on their own dime – to meet with the team and understand their needs. Communication with conservationists working so remotely is difficult, and it’s not easy to buy an extra screwdriver or wrench in the Sahara Desert. Gold and Cundill wanted to ensure they assembled everything the team would need to create, install and commission a remote field station
Now, they are trying to get the systems to the project site. Niger is landlocked and some surrounding countries are politically unstable. The systems have been stuck in the neighboring country of Benin since July. Gold believes they were finally released into Niger last week where they will begin a 2,500-mile trip to the project site.
“I’m not opening the bottle of champagne yet,” he told me. “But we’re optimistic and have been working on a resolution through high channels.”
The task is challenging, but both Gold and Cundill are incredibly positive. Perhaps it’s all the endorphins from their frequent work-outs, or maybe it’s the thrill of meeting a new friend and embarking on an adventure to save a species. Whatever the source of their optimism, Gold and Cundill’s determination shows what’s possible when San Franciscans take out their earbuds and talk to each other.
“Steve and I feed off each other and constantly talk about new projects,” Cundill said. “All the projects make great case studies for how lives and the environment can be changed around the world with renewable energy.”
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.