Interview:Mike Fay Is on a Trek to Preserve Forest in Gabon

Andrew Jones
National Geographic News
August 9, 2001
Last year, conservationist J. Michael Fay completed a 2,000-mile (3,200-
kilometer), fifteen-month walk through central Africa in some of the
world's most pristine forests. Now, the expedition leader for the
National Geographic Society and an ecologist for the Wildlife
Conservation Society has undertaken another challenge: a personal
campaign to preserve nearly 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) of forest
in Gabon as a national park.

National Geographic News: You were in the African bush for fifteen months. How has that changed your perspective on conservation?

Dr. J. Michael Fay: As a conservationist, I would says it's a double-edged sword. Because when you're out there, you realize how much is left. There's such abundance—it's so huge, it goes on forever. You can walk for fifteen months and basically be in the woods the whole time and not have to traverse areas that are inhabited by humans. And you think, "Wow, that's cool. This place is at the ends of the Earth; it will never be touched." Then you look at the map and the logging activity and you look at the human expansion and you think, "This place is all going to disappear in the next seven to ten years."

It makes you wake up to the fact that human beings, even in the 21st century, still don't regard natural resources as something precious. Because if they did, there would be a worldwide effort to preserve these places rather than extract wood out of them as quickly as possible with zero regard for ecosystems, while wasting most of that wood before you get it to the market. So from my perspective, it was pretty depressing.

NG News: Do you think there's anyone in particular to blame? Or is there no one person or group we can point to as the source of the problem?

Fay: I think the human species is what it is. It evolved to extract as many resources as it possibly could from the environment to survive better and better. That's kind of what humans are programmed to do. And to do the opposite of that, to conserve, I think is a very difficult thing for people to even comprehend, let alone enact. It's kind of counter-evolutionary, and I think it takes a lot of education and a lot of foresight. If humans want to survive on this planet without having some kind of catastrophic event take out large percentages of the population someday in the future, then they're going to have to make that shift. A lot of people talk about it, a lot of people understand it, but it's really hard to make that last jump and actually say, "Okay, I'm going to make a switch."

NG News: You're now trying to have nearly 250,000 hectares of forest land in Gabon designated as a national park. Why did you choose that particular area?

Fay: Well, there's a river in almost the dead center of Gabon called the Ivindo which has an amazing set of waterfalls. It's a big river, probably a hundred or so meters wide, of slow, black water, and it drains almost all of northeastern Gabon. These chutes, these waterfalls—two in particular called Mingouli and Kongou—make this place an attraction.

An Italian named Giuseppe Vassallo, who died about a year and a half ago…promoted this place as a national park because he said it was the best forest in Gabon. He talked about it and lobbied for it and cajoled people, but it just never quite happened. We walked across this block that he'd always talked about, and I actually flew over it with him in '98. We looked at the logging companies coming in from the west at a very rapid rate, and so we tried to design a walk in this place that didn't go through any logging. And we discovered the highest concentration of giant elephants that we'd seen on the entire walk. It's probably the only place left in the central African forest with elephants that are abundant and with a large percentage of very large males—tusks that no one has seen in a very long time, one hundred pounds on a side. Giant elephants—it's something you just don't see because they've been poached out of the population. [And] naive gorillas—something that we hadn't seen on the entire trip. You can tell they're naive because when they see you they don't run away, they don't look alarmed, they don't act alarmed, they don't vocalize. The males don't charge at all and they get very curious. They come to see you and they approach well within the danger zone. They sit there for hours and they just stare as if it's something they've never seen before, and it's pretty obvious that they haven't.

You travel a little bit farther along and there's this mountain that we'd been navigating toward for a few weeks, and it's again full of elephants, and it's got all kinds of beautiful topography and rocky cliffs. It's a real sort of hidden forest, and it really gives you a feeling of great isolation being up on this mountain plateau.

So we started walking south of the mountain and pretty soon we came upon an elephant trail that lead us a little bit astray. It lead us to the east of where we wanted to go but we kept on following it and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. I looked at the map and it was obvious that it was navigating us right toward a clearing. Long before you get to an elephant clearing you can tell where you're going, because the elephant trail opens up to like two meters wide, it's covered with dung, and there's a huge amount track that are on these "highways." It's a lot like how major highway arteries in the States get bigger as they go into the city—that's basically what it is for elephants—it's an "elephant city." So, we get there, and there it is—this clearing that no one has ever seen before, no conservationist even could have imagined existed in Gabon. This place is just abounding with wildlife and you think "This place really is what old Giuseppe said it was." Even though he had never walked in it, it was as if he just knew this place was the best. The place is called Langoue and it still exists.

If you look at the map from a land-use perspective though, you realize that the entire block has been given away to many different logging companies, and they're working their way into Langoue as fast as we can talk. They're going to log that entire area, and there's still about 500,000 hectares [1,235,500 acres] that are completely virgin, untouched forest. But because of the sheer number of logging companies in there, the potential to log that block completely very quickly is very high. So we're launching a campaign with the government and the logging companies and the conservation community and with the general public to try and create a national park in this place. That means pushing back time. That means going back in time essentially four or five years [ago], when there were no logging concessions in this place. And that's difficult to do. And it's expensive.

NG News: How much money are you looking to raise?

Fay: Well, if we had three and a half million dollars today, right now, we can go into Gabon tomorrow and negotiate the logging rights for those concessions and maybe preserve 300,000 hectares [741,000 acres] of that forest, which includes those naive gorillas, the giant elephants, the clearing on the mountain and the waterfalls. We could start that process quite easily tomorrow. But surprisingly, finding three and a half million dollars for conservation, in this world that has too much money, is very difficult.

NG News: Where have you been looking for funding?

Fay: Everywhere. You know, we don't have a major coordinated fund-raising effort that we're investing lots of money into. We're trying to do it on the cheap, I guess you could say. We're trying to use the media coverage that we've received and use the connections that we have from a number of sources. We have raised well over a million dollars already, but we…need three and a half million dollars, and without it we're not gonna get that national park. …When you look at the exploitation of the resources in those countries it's not done for the consumption of Gabonese or Congolese, it's done primarily for the consumption of Americans, Asians, and Europeans. And people need to be responsible for that. They can't just blithely keep going farther afield and exploiting the wilderness without having to pay some attention to that fact, without having to pay up. ...We get all upset when the U.S. government wants to go drilling in [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]. But when an oil company wants to drill in the most pristine place in Gabon, we don't say "boo." And that has to change. People need to be responsible globally if they're going to exploit globally. It has to be a two-way street.

NG News: How do you propose to monitor the park and protect it from such threats as poaching, logging, and bushmeat hunting?

Fay: It's that double-edged sword again. The place is very isolated right now. So we're looking at a four-pronged approach. The first prong was to basically get a team on the ground…to protect that clearing and get a presence in there that says to people, "There's somebody looking after this place." People have taken an interest in it, people have recognized that it's something that needs to be protected. ...We have money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a camp and a team on the ground. So that's prong number one.

Prong number two is the buy-back. We need to negotiate with logging companies and with the Gabonese government to find out how much it is going to cost and which blocks we can get. We're dealing with ten different blocks, each about 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres)…and each one takes a separate negotiation essentially. We have the green light from the Gabonese forestry minister to start this process.

The third prong of the effort is to establish a trust fund so that management will take place there in the long term. Trust funds not only create a situation where you can get funding for a place like that, but you also have a much broader management base…because if there's an international trust fund then there's an international board. And if there's an international board, people are going to be interested in keeping this place in a state that this fund was set up to preserve. Over the years national governments in Africa have shown great interest and have collaborated in international conservation efforts in their countries. This is seen as a positive and we have had great success in the past with these associations.

And then the fourth thing is to actually establish a long-term presence on the ground, which again requires some sort of international collaboration between the conservation organization and the national government. It relies on funding from the outside rather than inside the country. We have a grant to pay for the ground action for the next three years and the effort to negotiate the national park. So we're making pretty good progress on our four prongs. But we've only completed about 10 to 30 percent of the 100 percent that we need to go on all four of those demands. So, there's still a lot of work to be done.

There are some positive elements to build on. Along the megatransect route there are already some protected areas. The idea is to preserve and fully protect about one tenth of the entire forest. We need to be pragmatic by setting reasonable targets that we can accomplish.

You can send your contribution to the Langoue Fund, c/o Susan Hannah, Wildlife Conservation Society, 2300 Southern Blvd., Bronx, NY 10460 or e-mail Mike directly at

If you prefer, go to the Wildlife Conservation Society Homepage and scroll down on the left side. Select the "Donate Now" penguin and under "Please Choose" select "Dr. J. Michael Fay/African Wildlife" and fill in the form. Thanks for making the Langoue National Park happen.

For more information on the Megatransect and related sites:

Megatransect I

Megatransect II

Megatransect III

National Geographic Megatransect: Walking Across Africa (Multimedia)

Adventure July/August 2001 @

Wildlife Conservation Society: Congo Trek

World Wildlife Fund

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species: Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants

The Rainforest Database From Living Earth

African Mammals Databank

Gorillas Online

ECOFAC (in French)

Global Forest Watch

Lingala Words and Phrases

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