Africa MegaFlyover: Michael Fay and the Human Footprint

Michael Fay is looking distinctly out of place in the lounge of a huge Westcliff Ridge house surrounded by beautiful objects of high Western culture. He's dressed in a slightly misshapen red sweater, khaki shorts, and sandals. It turns out he's been sleeping on the lawn. It's midwinter; this is Johannesburg, South Africa; and there are still traces of frost on the grass.

There are good souls and there are interesting people, but occasionally you meet someone who should be running the planet.

 Michael Fay is looking distinctly out of place in the lounge of a huge Westcliff Ridge house surrounded by beautiful objects of high Western culture. He's dressed in a slightly misshapen red sweater, khaki shorts, and sandals. It turns out he's been sleeping on the lawn. It's midwinter; this is Johannesburg, South Africa; and there are still traces of frost on the grass.

"I could hear the lions at the zoo roaring," he comments, by way of explanation. "And the air is fresh."

This house of generous proportions belongs to Nora Kreher, the grande dame of The Bateleurs, a group of enthusiastic private pilots who fly missions of mercy for the environment. It's a good launching pad for Michael's next adventure, the Africa MegaFlyover.

I know Michael by reputation: Anyone who reads National Geographic could hardly have missed the buzz of articles about him as he walked with a team of pygmies clear across Africa's wild jungle heart, compiling a painstaking inventory of its biodiversity and threats to its future.

The day before I'd downloaded his curriculum vitae: eight closely typed pages. Under "skills" is listed commercial and bush pilot, exploration and reconnaissance, survival, firearms, climbing, biological and human survey, reserve establishment, leadership, videography, photography, fund-raising, community relations, scientific and popular writing, computers, construction, mechanics, and public speaking (he speaks seven languages).

He's been awarded six research fellowships, and I count 53 research grants but run out of patience scanning the endless list of scientific publications. Michael's also been consultant to a slew of organizations, including the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, National Geographic, BBC, U.S. Peace Corps, and National Cancer Institute of America. Most of his fieldwork has been in Kenya, the Congo, and Gabon.

"I'm an African conservationist," he explains when I tax him on his outrageous CV, which seems to have required three lifetimes to achieve. "And I'm good at getting people to believe in what I'm doing. Africa is perceived as one of the last frontiers of wilderness. People in the West say, 'It's OK if we turn our wild places into food crops because Africa's still there.' I'm not sure I go with that. We may be losing this last frontier. That's what MegaFlyover is all about."

A Map of Many Layers

The easiest way to describe Michael's new adventure is to say that he is following — and at the same time making — a map. But if by map you think of something on paper with lines and colors which you carry in order not to get lost, the description is misleading. It would be like comparing a game of checkers to three-dimensional chess. This is a map of the human footprint on the planet.

Until recently, such a map was not possible because detailed information on human activities at a global level simply wasn't available. But in the 1990s, with the thawing of the Cold War, NASA's satellite images were released to the public by the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

For the first time, nonmilitary cartographers and geographers could get access to global maps of startling accuracy. Using colour, temperature, elevation, and other satellite-produced indicators, a team of scientists from the New York”“based Wildlife Conservation Society and Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network produced a multilayered map showing population, land cover, roads, railways, rivers, coastlines, the electrical power infrastructure (grading light use at night), and entire terrestrial biomes.

From this information was extracted biome transformation, land accessibility, and human influence: the sum total of our planetary footprint. And, most compelling of all, it could be shown on a single global information system (GIS) map.

From this digitalized wonder, they created a human disturbance index, which showed that nearly three-quarters of the habitable surface of the planet has been transformed by human use.

Where Has the Wilderness Gone?

"That's what my walk in Central Africa was all about," says Michael, negotiating a large omelette — which seems more cheese than egg — that had appeared from Nora's kitchen. "We looked at the GIS map and asked, 'Where are the wildest places on Earth?' We called them the Last of the Wild and selected 568 last-of-the-wild areas representing all biomes in all the realms on Earth.

"In the Afro-tropical realm, all 10 of these areas fall in Central Africa. I worked out a route through the wildest places in these forests and walked it — about 3,200 kilometres in 15 months. We called it The Last Place on Earth, a place where the human habitation is lightest. It's an absolute treasure."

Some probing reveals that there are dangers in heaven: He was attacked by a forest elephant who put a tusk into his side. He saved his life by hanging onto its tusks so it couldn't gore him.

To describe the outcome of Michael's walk as spectacular would be an understatement. He convinced the president of Gabon, Omar Bongo Ondimba, to declare 13 national parks and raised around $120 million to support  development in the Congo Basin. Ondimba has become something of a hero; the World Bank has rolled over his country's foreign debt, and huge chunks of pristine forest are now protected.

"I thought, 'Let's do across the whole of Africa what we did in Gabon.' This time we would mostly fly. Go from areas of the highest to the lowest human footprint in all the biomes."

He continues, "You see things from a plane that you just don't recognize when you're on the ground. That's what the MegaFlyover is. We're going to be taking high-resolution digital photographs every 16 seconds. Then we'll stitch them together, and the human impact will be right there for everyone to see. We'll be filling in the GIS map to its finest detail.

"You'll be able to see if the Wildest of the Wild places are protected in parks or are outside them. You'll be able to assess habitability, land use, biodiversity, soil type.... This way you can find out how far along the path of destruction an ecosystem is. We'll have the information; we can then take action."

Michael answers a call. He's needed at Lanseria Airport. Urgently. Something to do with a Cessna. He sits down again, seemingly unperturbed by urgency, switches on his laptop, and the GIS map appears. He starts layering on information.

Seeing the Danger

"There's something more here than merely protecting the environment. Look at red; that's human density. See how it's stacked up against political boundaries. On the other side there's no red. Empty of humans. That's a danger signal. People without land will move into such land. People in Central Africa are moving west whether you like it or not. That's behind all the conflicts in the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda. That's the message of Darfur, the Sudanese genocide, Kisangali. With maps like this we can pinpoint potential flash points, almost to the month. This is a whole new science of conservation: futures prediction ecology. We can say, 'These people are going to kill each other in 2.3 years.'

"It's not about politics; it's about resource management. We have huge scope for improving how well we live on this planet, how we manage food production, energy consumption, soil and forest management. About 99 percent of the timber cut in Central Africa is wasted, burned, or left to rot. Think about that. If we don't get our planetary management right in this century, we will cease to exist as a species in any kind of way that humans would want to exist."

I'm more worried about Michael's urgent call from Lenasia than he seems to be, but I have to ask one last question.

"Why Africa?"

He responds, "It's the place I've lived for the past 30 years. I consider Africa my home. But also it's the place on the planet where people are living closer to the ground than anywhere else, where they survive on the resources around them with little import from anywhere else. The rest of the world thinks Africa is where wilderness is intact. It isn't and hasn't been for a long time. Even so, humans here are doing a much better job of living with nature. We need to understand what lessons this has for the world.

"The United States is consuming 20 million barrels of oil a day. Twenty million! We preserve our forests by burning fossil fuel instead of wood, but they're dying off anyway because they're weakened by pollution and are being killed off by bark beetles. Fossil fuel, fossil water; it can't last."

Michael unwinds himself from the couch when Norah comes in, tapping her watch, and I give him a ride to the airport. The next day I drive through the rampant new urbanism and pollution north of Johannesburg to Swartkop Air Force Base, where two red Cessnas packed with equipment are being prepared for takeoff. There's a farewell breakfast at which Michael displays one of his many talents: public speaking. Then he and his co-pilot, Austrian Peter Ragg, head for their aircraft.

"How long will the MegaFlyover take?" I ask, as he hauls himself onboard.

"Oh, about 15 months. Maybe more. As long as it takes."

Soon the two Cessnas are small, receding red dots in the blue, highveld sky. 

Don Pinnock lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and writes a regular column for Getaway magazine. He is also the author of African Journeys and Natural Selections: The African Wanderings of a Bemused Naturalist.

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Related Links

 The GIS map
The data set  

Source: Don Pinnock