Aerial Survey Documents Africa's Last Wild Places

David Braun
National Geographic News
August 17, 2005
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Thousands of digital images shot from a low-flying airplane have revealed a startling new portrait of Africa.

There are places where the continent is so stressed by overexploitation that entire ecosystems are in or near collapse. The result is human misery, such as currently seen in Niger, where thousands of people are starving.

But there are also surprisingly large regions where herds of thousands of antelope still run free, millions of people live in stability on carefully nurtured soil, or where new sustainable land-use policies are bringing the return of environmental equilibrium.

"Overall, I was more impressed than depressed by what I saw," said J. Michael (Mike) Fay, a conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the National Geographic Society. "Many Africans have figured out what they need to do to save their environment and themselves."

Fay has worked with conservation issues in Africa for three decades. After slogging through 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) of central African forests on his 2001 "Megatransect," his images and data persuaded the government of Gabon to establish 13 new national parks.

For his latest project Fay headed a seven-month aerial survey that ended in January. The "Megaflyover," a joint project of WCS, which is based in New York, and National Geographic, covered 60,000 miles (about 100,000 kilometers) from South Africa to Morocco.

The project produced more than 100,000 high-resolution digital images shot from a small Cessna flying only a few hundred feet (less than a kilometer) above the ground. (Read an interview with Fay about how Megaflyover was put together.)

Among the findings:

• Freshly dug graves "as far as we could see" in parts of South Africa and Botswana, possibly because of the tremendously high incidence of AIDS in those countries.

• Migrations of thousands of animals in Sudan's Boma National Park, Zambia's Liuwa Plains, and Zambia's Banguela Swamps. "A great congregation of animals is one of the best indicators of a well-functioning ecosystem," Fay said.

• Ten thousand hippos living peacefully in the Laungwa Valley in Zambia. Meanwhile, hundreds of hippos in Katavi National Park, Tanzania, huddled in a shrinking pool of mud, facing death as their watery habitat was being drained for crop irrigation. "I later heard that the rains came a few weeks later, just in time to save most of them," Fay said.

• Severe soil erosion, especially in South Africa and Morocco. "If the South African government doesn't address this problem it faces possible conflict as the people in the former homelands struggle to survive on their ruined land," Fay said. The former homelands are territories set aside for black South Africans during the apartheid era.

• Abundance of healthy soil, grass, and wildlife in a rehabilitated desert in Namibia. "This is the result of a new conservancy system that gives local communities tenure over their land, wildlife, and other resources," Fay said. "Landowners are encouraged to produce abundantly, but in a sustainable way."

• Thousands of Cape fur seals "having a good time on the beaches" of Namibia. "I knew immediately that so many happy seals must have plenty to eat. That means Namibia's fisheries are being managed sustainably."

• Places, particularly in the Sahel—the region between the Sahara Desert and the tropical zone of West Africa—where the human footprint is particularly heavy. In such areas the ability of the land to support human life has been far exceeded. "One could tell that these places were where the next humanitarian crises would emerge," Fay said.

Fay and his team are hoping to use their Megaflyover images and data to produce a "habitability index" and a map that will give early warning of ecosystems in dire trouble. The data will help to forecast and hopefully prevent further humanitarian disasters.

"If we can show where Africa has been overexploited and people face ruin, then we can act earlier to try to alleviate the situation," Fay said.

The route chosen for the Megaflyover was based on a WCS map of the "human footprint," (see earlier story about the human footprint). The map shows parts of the world that have been most impacted by human activity.

Fay used the human footprint map and a separate map of the world's wild regions prepared by the World Wildlife Fund to determine the least developed places in each of Africa's ecosystems.

Fay and pilot Peter Ragg flew from the most heavily settled centers to the emptiest and wildest part of each ecosystem and recorded everything along the way. A camera mounted in the plane snapped a digital image every 20 seconds, roughly corresponding to one image for each 0.4 square miles (1 square kilometer).

"We saw that humans have penetrated every one of Africa's ecosystems," Fay said. "We could see where this had caused an annihilation of the wildlife and massive deforestation. But we could also see encouraging examples of good conservation where wildlife flourishes. In several places we were encouraged to see how well Africans were managing their land."

The two men had some harrowing moments, including loss of the plane's oil pressure, engine failure, and encounters with power lines and sandstorms. At night they often slept on the ground next to the plane.

The adventurers had numerous meetings with local people, including journalists and administrators. "When we showed the people photos of their land they were always upset at signs of environmental destruction. No one likes to see that. Africans everywhere are concerned and wanted to do what they can to protect their environment," Fay said.

Fay hopes to use the images and the new map he will make to help persuade the U.S. Congress, United Nations, European Union, and the World Bank to change their thinking about funding support for Africa.

"They all think in terms of poverty alleviation. But that takes no account of sustainable development of Africa's resources," Fay said.

"The Megaflyover shows that where Africans have learned to use their land in a sustainable way, they are doing well and the ecosystem is surviving. Where the human footprint has become too heavy and people have simply exhausted their resources, there we see suffering on an epic scale."

"What we have seen in Africa is a wake up call for all of us."

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