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Michael Fay

"The MegaTransect: Protecting Africa's Rainforest"

04/04/2003: 11:30 AM


Michael Fay
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For 15 months Dr. Michael Fay hiked 1,200 miles across central Africa through dense forests and remote villages, to Africa's Atlantic coast.  Dr. Fay is a conservationist with the Science and Exploration Program at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and a Conservation Fellow at the National Geographic Society. He has spent his life as a naturalist, from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Maine woods as a boy, Alaska and Central America in college, to the depths of the African forest today. His work in Africa has led to the preservation of more than 10,000 square miles of rain forest in Gabon's first national park system.

After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in 1978 from the University of Arizona, Dr. Fay spent six years in the Peace Corps as a botanist in the national parks of Tunisia and the savannas of the Central African Republic. In 1984, he went to work at the Missouri Botanical Garden. A flora study of a mountain range on Sudan's western border eventually led to a Ph.D. on the western lowland gorilla. It was at this time that he first entered the forests of central Africa where he still works.

LECTURE SUMMARY

From the very start, Dr. Michael Fay's presentation went from the big picture to the personal.  The first image he discussed was a map of the African Congo, showing landscape polygons of pristine rainforest, many the size of Oregon.  The next slide showed Dr. Fay's erstwhile colleague and trail-cutter, Mambeleme, who along with a dozen other locals, made the 2000 mile trip with Fay through the last remaining pristine African rainforest.

Before setting out on this epic journey, the team gathered together in a village and celebrated for five straight days, drinking palm wine and smoking various local concoctions that could make the most sober-sided rationalist believe in the supernatural.

Fay summed up his trip only ten minutes into the talk: it was like the best dream you can have, and it just doesn't end.  After a few months you adapt to the conditions.  You no longer feel the heat or the leeches.  You don't notice the bad food or the worms burrowing into the soles of your feet.  You just focus on nature: the leopards that come around camp whenever you cook fish, the gorillas that patiently wait for you to catch up to them on the trail, the elephants that don't bother to charge because you're in "elephant forest" where they're at ease.  If this seems like an Alice In Wonderland image, said Fay, well, it is.

Here, far from human impacts, you can stumble onto huge "elephant cities," clearings where thousands of elephants visit singly and in small groups.  A mother and teenager who haven't seen each other in years may trumpet their greetings to each other across hundreds of meters, followed by a brief personal visit before they both go on their own way.  So when we develop these areas, we're not just cutting trees or altering habitat, we're destroying elephant societies.  Gorillas also gather to socialize, show off and look for mates.

Halfway into the journey, Fay approached several towering rock domes that he had seen from the air earlier.  He described these outcrops to his crew and said he'd call on his cell phone and they'd be re-supplied there by helicopter.  His forest-dwelling crew had little experience with cell phones, helicopters, and 2000 foot rock outcrops.  They were skeptical.  Then they were derisive.  Then, as their supplies ran out, they were worried.  When they stumbled into the domes, Fay heard the crew chastising each other "I told you so" and "didn't I tell you he was right?"  In general, Fay found that the chatter would go up as the food went down.

Now well into the journey, they found that the gorilla population along the latter half of the transect was very low, possibly decimated by the Ebola virus, or by the opening up of the forest.  Closer to the coast, the number of amphibian species increased.  This included the Gabon viper, a deadly snake with a head the size of a pancake, and 3 1/2 inch fangs.  Fay downplayed the danger: "...too lethargic to bite and more interested in food."  His pygmy crew wasn't so sanguine.  In fact the last leg of the trip was perhaps the most challenging.  It included a four hour neck-deep swamp crossing, and a tortuous rope-aided waterfall crossing, during which one of his crew lost his nerve and "froze" out in the middle of the rapids.  Fay described it as "Pygmy Outward Bound."

The dream did come to an end, at "the most beautiful beach in the world."  A beach with elephants ambling along the strand, hippos surfing, leatherback turtles breeding, and humpback whales cavorting off the coast.  It was stunning to Fay but terrifying to his crew.  They'd never the ocean.  Their existence is the forest, so they thought they were on the edge of the world.  When they were finally coaxed out to the water, they tasted it and said that this was the terrible place they'd heard about where you can't drink the water.  Regardless of their different reactions to the Atlantic shore, Fay and his crew shared one feeling:  they were all depressed that the adventure was over.

After flying his crew back inland (another jarring experience), Fay commenced the next leg of his journey: protecting what he had seen.  He showed us a map of Gabon with forest concessions (leases to foreign forest products companies) depicted in red (the map is mostly red).  But then he showed a revised map with the red pushed aside by a patchwork of emerald proposed national parks.  The idea was to start a conversation with central African governments and bring the international community on board.

Gabon's president, raised a country boy on the edge of the forest, was shown these maps, and the images of Fay's journey.  He knew that the forest products industry provides about 7% of Gabon's GDP, but the maps of red and Fay's images convinced him that this was a lousy deal.  Within eight months Gabon had thirteen new national parks.  But the African rainforest stretches beyond Gabon, and international help would be needed to set up and administer a comprehensive park system.  After visits from two congressmen and Colin Powell, the Bush administration threw its support behind this effort.  Why? Because they don't like instability, and they saw that if the region's natural resources are stripped away, instability is exactly what you get.

Christened the Congo Basin Forest Partnership and backed by a large matching grant from US AID, the effort to conserve the Congo rainforest involves six African countries and forty nonprofit organizations.  Dr. Fay has his work cut out to consolidate this initiative that started out with one person flying a small plane over the African rainforest, walking what he saw from the air, and staying focused, or as Fay said "keep your eyes on the trail and keep walking."  One senses that he is restless to get back into the forest.

Learn more about his trek in the Congo on the National Geographic website. Listen to a recent radio interview on NPR's Radio Expeditions.


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ill'-a-hee (chinook language): earth, ground, land, country, place, or world
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