Africa Explorer Takes Off on Yearlong Aerial Survey

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When you look at southern Sudan from a conservation point of view … it's the end of the Earth. It's been taken over by [civil war].

What [most people] don't know is that southern Sudan has several national parks [and] that the people who are running that southern part of the country have game guards. They're trying to make conservation happen. They just don't have the means to do it. They don't have the support.

So I'm really interested in getting into southern Sudan with this airplane and checking out these national parks that no one's seen for probably 30 years.

Your flyover is very different from the Megatransect, your 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) walk across Congo and Gabon in 1999 and 2000.

Well, the Megatransect … was really the culmination of four years of flying. People forget that I had this little airplane before the Megatransect and searched out every little crook and cranny of the forests of central Africa to really plan out this long walk to take a much closer look.

So for me, that's the first step: You get in an airplane and you start exploring the terrain. Because you can cover huge, huge areas in a short period of time, and the detail you get is quite amazing.

So to me it's kind of the prelude to getting back on the ground. I don't know if that will translate into a three- or four- or five-thousand-mile [4,800- to 8,000-kilometer] walk. Maybe it will. I don't know.

What five items will you bring that you consider essential?

We'll bring a pilot's shirt with four bars. That's extremely important in Africa, because if you arrive as captain, you are received in one way. If you arrive as Joe Schmoe, you are received in another way. So that's number one for me.

The airplane in good shape—very important. A little bit of food to eat [so] we can survive. Having our cameras functioning, our video functioning … and a toothbrush.

What special gear will you carry on the plane?

This airplane that we're flying is a Cessna 182. It's owned by [pilot Peter Ragg], who is completely obsessed by Cessnas. He's rebuilt it and painted it fire engine red. It's a 1964, but it looks like it was produced yesterday from the Cessna factory.

[Peter] has modified this thing so that it can fly at about half the speed that it normally flies. He has these vortex generators and … an amazing array of flying equipment to make this thing fly perfectly adapted [to our needs].

We've got a glass door on the copilot's side. So we can flip it up in flight and have a clear view that's open to the air. We've got a video camera attached to it and a regular digital [photo] camera attached to it.

So it's kind of like a data vacuum. We can just suck up information. We can look out and record [audio] in a push-to-talk-type recording device, so we can make comments about what we see.

What data will you collect?

We're going to be traveling, in most cases, pretty fast across the terrain. [With] these high-res digital cameras now—photographic cameras—you can collect a digital image of the terrain every X number of seconds. And that's what we're going to be doing, taking a visual image: Is there any human infrastructure here? Is there a road? Is there a trail? Is there a hut? Is there any wildlife? What's the state of vegetation?

This photograph is going to give us that, and it's going to be geo-located—the GPS instrument will actually send a signal to the camera and give us a position for every single photograph that we have.

So if we bring it up on our map in our [computer] program, the map just populates with thousands of little spots. … So if you're looking at a satellite image of what's down there, you can zoom right into this photo and see it.

How extensive is the human presence in Africa?

The human footprint in Africa is surprisingly heavy. Most people think of Africa as this kind of pristine wilderness, when in fact, it has a very heavy presence of humans.

So if you look at a country like Nigeria, for instance, you're talking about now a country of 140 million people. That is going up in leaps and bounds. [It] could be the third most populous country by 2050.

So you're talking about this continent filling up with people, basically.

Are you optimistic about conservation in Africa?

Being a conservationist is kind of like being a missionary. You don't question whether it's going to work. You don't question whether or not everyone is going to become conservationist eventually.

What you have to believe is that humans are a very inventive and ingenious species. So when they get to a point in their evolution where they decide, Hmm, we really do have to take management of natural resources, management of land, completely seriously. Because if we don't, this whole thing is going to collapse.

As conservationists, you can kind of set the stage. You can kind of preserve the basis for all of that. Then you've got to think, OK, that's what we're going to need for this next phase. When that [phase is] going to come, we don't know. But pressure is building. So people are going to be more and more apt to do that.

But questioning whether conservation is something that's … going to succeed—you don't question that. You just go forward.

For more J. Michael Fay news, scroll down

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