Aerial Survey Documents Africa's Last Wild Places

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.

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