African Flyover Reveals Impact of 'Human Footprint'

Map of the MegaFlyover, including route and population densities. i i

Map of the MegaFlyover, including route and population densities -- Click to enlarge. Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic Maps hide caption

itoggle caption Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic Maps
Map of the MegaFlyover, including route and population densities.

Map of the MegaFlyover, including route and population densities -- Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic Maps
A herd of 500 black lechwe dot the flood plains of the Banguela Swamps in Zambia.

Appearing like "spots on a strawberry" from the plane, a herd of 500 black lechwe dot the flood plains of the Banguela Swamps in Zambia. J. Michael Fay/National Geographic Society hide caption

itoggle caption J. Michael Fay/National Geographic Society
Michael Fay sleeps under the shelter of his plane. i i

After eight hours in the air, conservationist and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence J. Michael Fay sleeps under the shelter of his plane. Fay and pilot Peter Ragg flew at low altitude some 70,000 miles across Africa. Peter and Hannelore Ragg/National Geographic Magazine hide caption

itoggle caption Peter and Hannelore Ragg/National Geographic Magazine
Michael Fay sleeps under the shelter of his plane.

After eight hours in the air, conservationist and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence J. Michael Fay sleeps under the shelter of his plane. Fay and pilot Peter Ragg flew at low altitude some 70,000 miles across Africa.

Peter and Hannelore Ragg/National Geographic Magazine

Mike Fay has a perspective on Africa few people in the world can claim — he's likely seen more of the continent first-hand than anyone in history.

Beginning in 1999, the renowned conservationist and explorer spent more than a year hiking 2,000 miles across Africa's Congo Basin to explore the ecology and environmental status of the region.

In 2004, as part of a project by the National Geographic Society and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fay began his African "MegaFlyover." He collected data from a much larger perspective — this time, spending months flying over most of the continent of Africa in a small plane at low altitude, photographing the ground below.

Some 70,000 air miles later, Fay has returned to Earth with some troubling news: "Just as we suspected, humans have penetrated very deeply into every single ecosystem in Africa that we visited," Fay says. "We found many, many places where soils and vegetation and water systems are being exhausted."

Fay and pilot Peter Ragg followed a general map of the "human footprint" on the continent while automatic cameras snapped a photo of the ground below every 20 seconds. While much of what they witnessed is cause for alarm, in many ways Africa is ahead of much of the rest of the world when it comes to how humans and wild places can co-exist.

"The human footprint looks much lighter in most cases than it does in the United States or in Europe — or in China or anyplace outside of that continent," Fay tells Alex Chadwick. "And it looks to me like (Africans) are really thinking about their relationship with the land, whereas in... the Western world — and indeed, the Eastern world — they're not."

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