for National Geographic News
In December 2000, wildlife conservationist Michael Fay completed an epic 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) trek through the central forests of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. Traveling with Pygmy guides, Fay documented the natural diversity of the Colorado-size wilderness. Fay dubbed his walk the "Megatransect". His goal to protect this wilderness moved closer to reality in September when Gabon President El Hadj Omar Bongo announced that he would establish 13 new national parks in the country. For Fay, the decree marks only the beginning. National Geographic News recently spoke with Fay to learn more about his ideas for wildlife conservation and his plans for future colossal treks.
Why did President Bongo decide to establish 13 new national parks in Gabon?
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and others have been working on conservation in Gabon for a long time. We haven't had a huge amount of success. Logging has made huge inroads into all countries in central Africa in the last 20 years, particularly since 1994.
After the Megatransect, I launched a campaign with friends and colleagues at WCS and WWF who had been working on a national park master plan for Gabon with the ministry in charge of forests to create a single national park in Gabon that wasn't on the map. It had always been identified as an ecologically-important area, but had never been protected. On the walk, we found this one of the best forest clearings ever discovered in this area, now called Langoue. This place was full of giant-tusked elephants, gorillas who had never seen humans, sitatunga (a large forest antelope) that you could approach to within a few meters, forest hogs, buffalo. It was unbelievable. This place, while covered with logging concessions, just had to become a national park.
I thought we should try to put the national park issue front and center in Gabon. I wanted to get the government, the local people, logging companies, the international community, the media, and the diplomatic forces behind this idea of creating a park.
So I went to see President Bongo in New York in his hotel room. I started showing him pictures [on my laptop computer] taken by my friend at the National Geographic Society, [photographer] Nick Nichols, who was my partner on the Megatransect. [Nick's photos captured] surfing hippos, gorillas in clearings, elephants in the forest, and gorillas and chimpanzees caressing their young. The president was transported into the computer. He was there. You could see right away that he was completely blown away by what he saw.
He kept asking his foreign minister, "How come I don't know about these things? We must act quickly." He said, "We're going to do something dramatic. We need to develop tourism in our country. We need to shift the economy to a more diversified one. These are unbelievable resources in our country that we haven't thought about. We haven't thought about integrating into our national economy and national heritage."
What do you see as the remaining challenges?
We have opened up a large debate. The national parks exist on paper, but there are still a lot of unresolved legal issues that we need to deal withlogging concessions within these national parks, money interests, and the local people.
The grand plan is for Gabon to become the Costa Rica of the East. The world should regard Gabon as the natural paradise of tropical forest Africa.
We want people to think about Gabon as a place to see an unbelievable abundance of natureelephants on the beach, gorillas basking in the suna real natural paradise. I think we can accomplish that because what we have there is just that. This national park system that we've set up encompasses all the biodiversity and all of the habitats.
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