Interview With Africa Explorer J. Michael Fay

David Braun
National Geographic News
August 17, 2005
Related Multimedia

Map and Photo

Video Clip

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.

They assigned a value for each kilometer which enabled them to rank those parts in each ecosystem most impacted by human activity and those which are least affected. They calculated how much the human footprint weighs on each square kilometer of the planet.

I superimposed the human footprint map on a separate map prepared by the World Wildlife Fund, the Wild World map, which shows the world's different eco-regions. I used a computer to calculate in each of Africa's ecosystems the location of the single square kilometer where the human footprint was lightest.

Our method was to fly from the nearest densely populated settlement to the square kilometer that indicated the least disturbed wilderness and to record the transition between them.

What was your overall impression?

We saw the intersection of two lines that have progressed for a long time: the finite availability of resources and the infinite ability of humans to consume.

The human footprint is now felt on every square inch of the planet and we are closing in on the last resources. We must be serious about how we are going to use what's left in a sustainable way.

Many well-meaning people don't mention that when they talk about Africa. Often they will talk about poverty-alleviation, implying that we should be enabling people to exploit more of their resource base. They should rather be talking about sustainable development so that we can all share resources responsibly.

It's in places where development has surpassed what the land can support that, not surprisingly, we find societies in collapse, the Darfurs and the Nigers of the world. If you look at the human footprint map you can predict where we are likely to see the next Niger—those bright red zones where the human footprint is heaviest.

Do you have a solution?

There's no silver bullet. But we can start trending toward a more sustainable solution. There is no one that can't come up with five ideas in five minutes about how to become a better user of resources. We have to bring it to that level.

In some parts of Africa we saw people who have ruined their land and are paying the price. In other regions we saw millions of people who have obviously thought about their land and have learned how to protect it.

What will you do next?

We will develop a new kind of map that assigns to every square kilometer of the planet a value for the ability of the land to sustain human life. It will look at rainfall, temperatures, soils, vegetation cover, and more. It will show places that have exceeded that ability and where we may expect the next humanitarian disasters.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.