Long March to Save Wild Africa

Conservation biologist Mike Fay is gearing up for a year-long trek through the heart of Africa to survey plants and animals before they are lost to the spread of civilization. The project, set to get under way next week, is intended to generate data that African governments and land managers can tap to cordon off ecologically valuable lands while encouraging sustainable logging and hunting elsewhere.

Such a project requires an almost obsessive commitment to conservation, a kind of devotion that Fay, affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York City, has demonstrated before. In 1993, he led a campaign to persuade the Congolese government to set up a national park to protect 400,000 hectares of the Nouabale-Ndoki forest, a vast preserve teeming with forest elephants, an antelope called the bongo, and lowland gorillas.

The new project, which Fay calls a "megatransect," is an ambitious effort to survey a 1400-kilometer-long swath of land, stretching from the Central African Republic southeast across Congo to the coast of Gabon. After striking out from a settlement at the edge of the dry, sandy Ngoto forest, Fay and a company of local guides and porters will follow human and animal trails deep into the forest, inventorying plants and animals and searching for additional signs of ancient settlements. Along for the ride will be a photographer for National Geographic, which is funding the expedition. "I want to be able to take away as many images as I possibly can," Fay says.

While typical surveys cover only a small area, or examine only a few aspects of a wider terrain, the megatransect "offers an unprecedented opportunity for an ecological snapshot on a large scale," says John Hart, a WCS senior scientist who has studied the effects of Congo's civil war on wildlife. Adds Claudia Olejniczak, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, St. Louis, "what Mike proposes to do is extremely important" for documenting the land before humans irrevocably alter it.