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Megatransect: 1,200 Miles Through the African Forest


This article is the second of a two-part series about the Megatransect, a 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) walk through central Africa to record the diversity of forest plants and animals—with the hope of conserving at least part of a rapidly disappearing wilderness. To learn more about the journey, read part one, Extreme Africa: A Trek Through the Heart of Darkness.

The most remote point of the Megatransect

This mountain marked the journey's most remote point—45 miles (72 kilometers) from the nearest village.
Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Society


At one point during his trek across central Africa, conservationist J. Michael Fay entered a forest once home to gorillas. But among the trees, "We saw no gorillas. We heard no gorillas," he said. It was suspected that the animals had died off following an outbreak of Ebola.

"[Thousands of] gorillas just disappeared from the face of the Earth and no one knew about it," said Fay. "We are dealing with the forest at that level."

This was one motivating factor of Fay's 460-day, 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) walk through African forest: the opportunity to explore an area Fay said he believes has remained uninhabited by humans for more than 100 years.

"We don't know very much" about this region, said Fay. "We need to learn a lot more."

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"I sat there thinking about perfectly wild animals approaching in such innocence."

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The Megatransect was also an opportunity to capture the forest's flora and fauna on paper, film, and video—a chance to show the outside world the importance of preserving the Congo forest.

Fay's close encounter with a charging elephant was one moment caught on film. Like many other animals met on the trek, Fay postulated that the elephant had never seen humans.

Holding his camera steady, Fay stood his ground and the elephant moved on. "The point of engaging them is to see how they react to humans," he explained. By the end of the journey, he had documented about a hundred such elephant encounters.

Fay took notes on leopard tracks and chimpanzee nests. He documented about 40,000 piles of elephant and gorilla dung he found on the journey. He recorded bird songs to be later identified by experts. He collected data on more than 35,000 trees.

In the forest, Fay also noted plant species he encountered, including palm nuts that he said he believed had been grown by humans who once lived in the area.

Even as Fay's group reached the beaches of Gabon, animals abounded. "Elephants and hippos and leopards—every species of wildlife that's out there just spills out [onto the beach]," said Fay. "Hippos frolic in the surf."

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"Like the flick of a switch, we were no longer in elephant country, but in the human realm, striking and real."

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Fay first conceived of the Megatransect when conducting aerial surveys of elephants in central Africa. From the air, he said, he saw "a very large swath that was virtually uninhabited."

This corridor of connected forest gave Fay an opportunity to study the relationship between humans and forest—including what happens when humans intrude upon this land.

The Megatransect comes at a time when the central African forest is facing a major threat: logging. "Most forest in central Africa will be logged in the next 30 years, probably 90 percent of them." But, says Fay, "there is some flexibility there."

Fay helped negotiate the preservation of the Nouabalé-Ndoki area, which is now one of Congo's national parks. He went on to become director of the park project, working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization that continues to negotiate with logging companies to preserve Congo forests.

National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols, who accompanied Fay on the trek, pointed out that the preservation of local cultures at the periphery is also important to the ecology of the forest. "The Bambendjellé Pygmies are very important to the mix," he said, and intrusions by logging companies can impact them as well. "They can't handle the modern world very well. They just break down."

It is not too late to prevent the destruction of the Congo forest, said Nichols. "In a lot of places this is just starting to happen."

"We really need to concentrate today," said Fay, "and put this place on the map from the conservation point of view."



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