WASHINGTON–It had never been done before: a walk through more than 1,200 miles of pristine central African forest — perhaps the wildest place on Earth.
Conservationist J. Michael Fay of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) set off from the Republic of the Congo on Sept. 20, 1999. Fifteen grueling months later, Fay and his team of 12 African men reached an isolated stretch of Gabonese coast, a place where elephants roam the beach and hippos splash in the surf.
The result of the trek is a portrait of forested wilderness seriously threatened by loggers, bush meat traders and ivory poachers, the first complete picture — and perhaps the last — of a place fast disappearing. “We could feel the doors closing behind us as we walked,” Fay said. In fact, some stretches of forest have been logged since Fay’s band came through.
The expedition — a project funded by the National Geographic Society and WCS — quickly proved a test of endurance and wilderness survival skills. Fay’s chosen route, through 13 connected blocks of uninhabited forest from northern Republic of the Congo to the Atlantic coast of Gabon, featured dense tropical forest, vast, teeming swamps and one area cleared of gorillas perhaps by the deadly Ebola virus. The objective: to stay as far from human populations as possible. The dangers ranged from microscopic parasites to armed poachers.
The trip was almost the last assignment for veteran wildlife photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols of National Geographic, who had to leave the expedition for more than three months with a serious case of hepatitis B. (He went on to shoot a three-part National Geographic magazine series on the expedition, including the March 2001 cover.) Hepatitis nearly killed a Pygmy in the group, and a Bantu member had to be evacuated because of a severely infected foot.
On one three-week stretch the team had only swamp water to drink, and one night drank from a milky brown mudhole. After changing crews partway through the journey, Fay was the only one who made the entire 1,200-mile trip. “Things that bring the rest of us down don’t do that to him,” Nichols said.
The Megatransect, Fay’s name for the project, gathered data by many means, including digital video camera, digital audio recorder and Global Positioning System. The project was based on the field biology concept of “transect” — a line cut through an area for data collection.
But Fay’s Megatransect or “large line” had a direction all its own. “We walked in the woods and reported everything we saw,” he said. That meant panning with the video camera as he walked and looking at the ground a lot, to minimize damage to his feet as he searched for scat piles, animal footprints, territorial scrape marks, animal burrows, fallen leaves, fruit…. In all Fay counted some 40,000 piles of animal dung and counted and measured 35,000 trees. His observations filled 50 rainproof notebooks.
“What I am trying to show the world, in a desperate way, is that we’re just about to lose the last little gems on the African continent,” Fay, 44, said during the journey. “If we don’t do something now — today — we can forget about it.”
The expedition’s key findings:
- Langoué Forest (Gabon): A large forested area with abundant wildlife that apparently had not seen humans in a very long time. Fay came in contact with “naive” gorillas — they showed no fear of people — and numerous very large bull elephants, rare in Africa because many have been killed for their long ivory tusks. “The gorillas there would go back and get the family, and then they would all come up to us and just stare,” Fay recalled. Partly as a result of the Megatransect, the Gabonese government is considering turning the area into a national park.
- “Green Abyss” (Congo): Fay’s name for an enormous, almost impenetrable thicket of vegetation that covers thousands of square miles in northern Congo. No conservationist is known to have been to this place before. In its center Fay saw uncounted animals, including numerous elephants and “monster-size” chimpanzees. “It’s a Shangri-la for wildlife,” Fay said, and it’s threatened by logging. The Green Abyss was by far the most difficult leg of the Megatransect, the stems of its plants standing 15 feet high, with multiple branches groping crosswise and upward and big leaves turned toward the sun. On one 10-hour day the team progressed less than a mile. There was no sign that any human had been in the Abyss’ clearing in modern times, but Fay found evidence of turn-of-the-century villages. The area is being considered for protection.
- Goualougo Triangle (Congo): Some 70,000 acres of pristine forest that is home to vast numbers of wildlife, much of it naive. The area was on the verge of being logged — the concession had been awarded — but it now is a candidate for addition to Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.
- Minkébé Reserve (Gabon): Perhaps the largest remaining wilderness in central Africa, the forest encompasses more than 12,500 square miles. The Gabonese government has recently designated a sizable area as Minkébé Reserve, and other parcels are under consideration for such protection. Wildlife abounds here, with a major exception: Fay saw almost no evidence of apes in the 150 miles he walked. People living nearby tell of seeing piles of dead gorillas a few years back, and there are documented cases of people who died after eating the meat of chimpanzees. Fay suspects that the Ebola virus may have had something to do with the absence of gorillas.
Fay, who is collaborating with other groups to preserve these places, estimates that the lands could be protected for 50 cents an acre a year for the 10 million acres targeted. “It’s time now to create the Yellowstones of central Africa,” Fay said.
The Megatransect is the subject of a three-part series in National Geographic magazine (October 2000, March 2001 and August 2001) as well as an hour-long National Geographic EXPLORER program premiering Sunday, March 18, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.