Interview With Africa Explorer J. Michael Fay

August 17, 2005

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In June 2004, in a modified Cessna 182 fitted with cameras, conservationist J. Michael Fay and pilot Peter Ragg lifted off from Swartkops Air Force Base near Pretoria, South Africa. Their departure launched one of the most remarkable expeditions in the history of Africa.

The explorers crisscrossed the continent, snapping a digital image every 20 seconds and recording the human impact on Africa's ecosystems.

A joint project of the National Geographic Society and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the expedition was dubbed the "Africa Megaflyover." (Read the news story.)

Over the next seven months Fay and Ragg surveyed some of Africa's wildest regions, contrasting them with large settlements. Fay concluded that where Africans had learned to live in a thoughtful and sustainable way they were doing well.

But where people had packed themselves on land that could not possibly sustain their needs, ecosystems collapsed and humanity was in serious trouble.

National Geographic News interviewed Fay about the mission.

What could you learn from the Megaflyover that we don't already know from satellite imagery?

With satellites you see the forests but not the trees. Our images were made from only a few hundred feet [less than a kilometer] up. We saw individual people and animals. I keyed in observations all day every day into my laptop about what I saw on the landscape. Once on the ground we talked to people, verifying what we saw from the air.

This is a fresh look at an old approach to conservation—which is that you look at how humans impact the ecosystem. We will use the data and images we collected to urge governments to uphold existing protections or create new mechanisms to conserve the land.

How did Megaflyover come about?

We started with the WCS human footprint map. WCS looked at variables that measure human activity in any given square kilometer [0.4 square miles] on Earth: roads, agriculture and other land use, settlement sizes, stable light.

Continued on Next Page >>


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