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Low-Flying Conservationist Surveys Eco-Regions of Africa


In a follow up to his walk across Africa in 2001, biologist, explorer and ecologist Michael Fay recently completed a 7-month aerial survey of the African continent. The images shot from his low-flying plane create a visual record of the impact humans have had on Africa's diverse natural environment.

Michael Fay made the 110,000-kilometer expedition in a small Cessna aircraft equipped with computerized maps, a global positioning system and a digital camera that was programmed to take a picture every 20 seconds. And while the camera was taking pictures, Mr. Fay was recording his own observations. "I am looking down at the ground the whole time through a glass door, and I am making observations clicking them into my computer the whole way," he says, recalling the flight. "And, I am sitting there all day, every day watching those photos come up (questioning) whether (I am seeing) cows or wildlife. How is that river doing? Is there water in it or is it (silted)? What kind of mine is that? And just all day, all day (I am) frantically writing those notes, packing them in to (my) computer."

Mr. Fay's Megaflyover -- a joint venture by the National Geographic Society and the Wildlife Conservation Society -- traced a cloverleaf pattern over the continent from South Africa north to Morocco.

Mr. Fay says the more than 100,000 photographs from the journey clearly show the impact of human activities. He says the ecosystems are healthiest where development has been balanced with conservation practices -- as in the mountainous regions of Kenya and Tanzania.

"Hundreds of thousands of people are living very tightly around Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro," he says. "The forests around those mountain tops are protected. The water systems work. And, you see almost no erosion in those areas of Kenya and Tanzania."

Michael Fay cannot forget the sight in the desert of Niger of a pair of addaxes, remnants of a once-thriving population of spiral-horned antelopes, or the thousands of blue wildebeest and zebra migrating over vast stretches of land, an indication of a healthy ecosystem.

Elsewhere, he notes, the picture was much different: rows of coffins in graveyards in South Africa presumably linked to the AIDS epidemic, deeply eroded streambeds, and in Tanzania's Katavi National Park, a huge mass of hippos dying in the scorching sun. "You see that land uses upstream - rice culture and cattle - have really degraded that watershed," he says. "So not only are hippos suffering downstream at Katavi and Ruaha National Parks, but hydroelectric schemes that also depend on that flow downstream are also suffering."

Michael Fay says international donor organizations like the World Bank -- the agency that funded the rice project in Tanzania -- must rethink aid strategies. He says sustainable development must be part of the equation. "If we are looking at developing a rice scheme in Tanzania, we should be thinking about hippos in Katavi. We should be thinking about hydroelectric production downstream," he says. "If we are going to be logging in Madagascar, we should be thinking about natural resource conservation. We should be thinking about water for agriculture downstream, and I don't see that happening generally in the development community. (They) are talking about humanitarian assistance, about building roads, and hospitals and schools, but we are not really integrating it into a strategy that takes the natural resource base into account."

Michael Fay says natural resources management must also become part of the national consciousness, as in Gabon, where a network of national parks has become a catalyst for change. "The real talk of the town in Gabon is over logging and conservation, the management of forests as a resource and whom it is benefiting and whom it is not," he says. "That discussion gets launched by this move for conservation and protected areas, and I think that the more action like that we see, the greater this debate will bring us toward a sustainable future."

Michael Fay says he plans to use the images and data from the Megaflyover to urge governments to enforce existing laws that protect the environment and to encourage world leaders and international aid agencies to promote better management strategies that can sustain both Africa's people and the natural environment.

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