News / USA

Man's Africa Trek Saves Pristine Forests

Michael Fay's plant and wildlife survey prompts protections

Naturalist Michael Fay camped out at the Missouri Botanical Garden during a recent visit to St. Louis.
Naturalist Michael Fay camped out at the Missouri Botanical Garden during a recent visit to St. Louis.



Michael Fay calls himself a “nature boy.” He’s made a career of exploring the globe in the name of environmental protection, sponsored by organizations like National Geographic and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

In September 1999, Fay, then in his early forties, set out on the MegaTransect, a 15-month survey of plants and wildlife that took him more than 3,000 kilometers, on foot, across the forests of west-central Africa’s Congo basin.

As a result of that journey, millions of hectares of pristine forest were put into protected status.

Impossible mission

When the naturalist set out with about a dozen Pygmy guides to walk across the dense tropical forests of the Congo and Gabon, most people thought he was on an impossible mission.

“You know, we were [on] like an epic voyage out there," he says. "Every day you have to find food for 13 people, you have to keep everyone healthy. You have to be the mother, the father, the coach, everybody, for all these guys.”

Fay intended for his journey through the last pristine forests in west-central Africa to draw international attention to the rich biological diversity being threatened by commercial logging.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Michael Fay stands in front of a Cessna plane in June, 2004, before his MegaFlyover of Africa.
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Michael Fay stands in front of a Cessna plane in June, 2004, before his MegaFlyover of Africa.

He admits the local people on his team didn’t really know what they were signing up for.

“They certainly got depressed after three or four months out on the trail," he says. "So I had to switch teams about halfway through, because those guys were just burned out, basically.”

At one point, they stopped at a small village where Fay warned his companions not to drink the water because of the risk of disease.

“And sure enough, one of the Pygmies gets hepatitis like, probably two or three weeks later. And the first reaction of those guys to something like that is to scarify them with razor blades and bleed them, you know, to get the bad blood out," Fay remembers. "And so here you’ve got this highly-infectious guy, who all of a sudden everybody’s touching his blood, and I just had these nightmares of the whole crew getting hepatitis.”

According to Fay, it took about a week to carry the sick man to a river, where they used a dugout canoe to transport him to safety.

Expedition of a lifetime

Using a satellite-based positioning system, digital cameras, and a laptop computer, Fay documented his experiences - good and bad - during his long trek through the forest.

He crossed rivers, hacked through dense underbrush, and slogged through deep, muddy swamps. Along the way, he saw an enormous variety of wildlife, from elephants to aardvarks to gorillas.

Fay also came across roads and bulldozers, where logging companies were cutting down the forest.

Fay collected samples, took photographs, and compiled a detailed description of, as he puts it, “every pile of dung, every tree, every cry of a chimpanzee” along his route. He sent occasional dispatches describing the trip to one of his funders, the National Geographic Society, which published his accounts online.

“It was hard. But we didn’t lose a single person, and it was an expedition of a lifetime, for sure.”

Making a difference

For Fay, the risk and hardship were worth it. The knowledge that came out of his trip, and the attention it drew to the rich biodiversity of the Congo basin, spurred the creation of 13 national parks in Gabon, which placed more than four million hectares of forest into protected status.

“And those parks are still very much protected and real. And logging - just like I thought - has completely surrounded every single one of those parks in the interim. So if we didn’t do it when we did it, none of that forest would have been saved from logging.”

After he finished the MegaTransect in 2000, Fay rented an apartment in Washington, D.C., intending to write up his findings. But after sleeping outdoors in the forest for so long, he had a hard time readjusting to city life.

“I spent one night in this apartment, and I immediately just fled, you know. And I went to Rock Creek Park, which is the big National Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., and it was like ‘Oh my God, this is perfect, this is beautiful, I can sleep outside, the birds are here, there’s deer, there’s trees, you know it’s forest cover,’ and I thought, you know, ‘Why would I ever want to live inside?’”

Since returning from his expedition across the Congo Basin, Fay has conducted other large-scale surveys of biodiversity. His latest, in 2007, took him on a 3,000 kilometer hike through California’s redwood forests - not bad, for a guy in his early 50s.

And no matter where he is, Fay says he still avoids sleeping indoors, if he can help it.

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