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African Flyover Reveals Impact of 'Human Footprint'

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African Flyover Reveals Impact of 'Human Footprint'

Radio Expeditions

African Flyover Reveals Impact of 'Human Footprint'

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Mike Fay is back with us, the renowned conservationist who spent 15 months hiking 2,000 miles across Africa's Congo Basin a few years ago to explore the ecology and environmental status of that region. Last year, he set out to gather data from a still larger perspective; this time spending months flying over the entire continent of Africa in a small plane at low altitude photographing everything he saw. DAY TO DAY covered the launch and the landing of that expedition. In Washington today at the National Geographic Society, Mike is reporting his findings and he's here with us again in this Radio Expeditions interview.

Mike Fay, welcome back to DAY TO DAY.

Dr. MIKE FAY (Conservationist): Thanks, Alex. Good to be here.

CHADWICK: You set out on this journey; you covered 70,000 miles. Remind us again of the goals and your technique, what it is you were doing.

Dr. FAY: To survive; that was the main objective. But after that, it was really to look at the human landscape and how it is affecting every single ecosystem indeed on Earth, but this project forced on Africa. So we penetrated just about every single ecosystem and took a look-see to see what humans are doing down there and how nature is fairing.

CHADWICK: Where did you start, where did you end up and where did you go?

Dr. FAY: We started in South Africa, flew up all through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, all the way through the Sahel up along the Atlantic Coast and ended up in Portugal.

CHADWICK: You are flying from sort of one landing site to another in areas with conservation activity in this quite small plane but fitted out with extravagant camera systems. So you took pictures every 20 seconds.

Dr. FAY: Yeah. Basically what we were doing was following this map that depicts the weight of the human footprint on every square kilometer on Earth. And what we did was we took a photograph every 20 seconds which corresponds basically to one grid square on that map, and so it allows you to kind of see, `OK. What's happening down there? Is there any wildlife? Are the trees still there? Is the vegetation OK? Are the soils eroding? And how rich are people on the ground? What are they living like?'

CHADWICK: Well, after all this, what is your conclusion or conclusions? You've probably got more than one.

Dr. FAY: Just as we suspected, humans have penetrated very deeply into every single ecosystem in Africa that we visited. We found that most wildlife today in Africa is restricted already to protected areas, areas that have been designated by this dominant species, the human, to say, `Yes, we will spare you here, but nowhere else.' And we found many, many places where soils and vegetation and water systems are being exhausted, and Niger being a case in point. But then on the other hand, countries like Botswana and Namibia really are making big efforts to look at this very thing of how are humans impacting natural systems and kind of building their whole national development strategy on that kind of perspective.

CHADWICK: I recall talking to you at the end of last year when you just finished this flight, and at that point, your sort of impression was that Africa actually looked better than you had expected from the standpoint of conservation.

Dr. FAY: Yeah, I think that when people think of Africa in this country, they think of devastation. They think of lawlessness. They think of mismanagement, corruption. But when you fly over Africa in this small airplane and you're looking down every second of the day all day, you realize, `No, these countries have a lot going for them from a natural resource perspective.' 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. And it looks to me like humans are really thinking about their relationship with the land, whereas in a lot of cases today, I think, in the Western world and, indeed, the Eastern world, they're not. So from that perspective, I think, yeah, Africa is ahead of a lot of countries.

CHADWICK: Mike, what are you going to do with this information now?

Dr. FAY: Well, I think there's a two-pronged approach. The first one is more political than anything else. What I want to do is take these images 'cause they're extremely telling. You show people an image of a well that's a hundred meters deep in the middle of the Sahara and you see hundreds and hundreds of cattle and sheep crowded around this place that doesn't have any appreciable vegetation for, you know, a hundred kilometers around and you can start convincing people that we need to consider the natural resource base of developing countries and, indeed, the entire Earth very seriously in our development approaches.

So my approach to Congress, to the World Bank, to the United Nations, to the EU is going to be to say, `We need to make natural resource management a central theme in development strategies; not just poverty elevation, but sustainable development.'

CHADWICK: You said two-tier approach. What's the second tier?

Dr. FAY: The second tier is more of a scientific analysis where we will take a new map that we're going to call habitability, which takes rainfall and vegetation and soils and various other things to look at kind of the natural ability of land to support human life and overlay that with the human footprint. And when we do that, we're going to be able to see where humans have already exceeded the capacity of the land to supply their needs. And that way we can really start strategizing to say, `OK, here is where we have to look very closely quickly. Here are other places where if we are proactive in natural resource management, we can avoid Darfurs and Nigers in the future.'

CHADWICK: You've worked in Africa for 30 years, but still you must have been seeing places that you haven't seen before.

Dr. FAY: Oh, man. I mean, just the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, the archipelagos along the coast of the Indian Ocean, the islands around Madagascar, the dunes of the Sahara Desert--all those places I'd never seen, so it was like a dream come true for me.

CHADWICK: And you are a wildlife conservationist. You must have seen wildlife you haven't seen before.

Dr. FAY: You know, I've been dreaming about, again, the last of the oryx and the addax in the Sahara Desert. And you think, `God, I'll never see those,' you know. And lo and behold, we're flying along and--Boom!--there are two addax. I'll never forget that. And Barbary sheep--we didn't find the oryx, but you know, just seeing these incredibly rare, large mammals that never drink a drop of water in the middle of the Sahara Desert, hours flying from any human habitation, is just incredible.

CHADWICK: Dr. Michael Fay, a wildlife conservationist. His most recent survey, the Africa Mega Flyover, was funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic. The September issue of the magazine is entirely devoted to Africa, and it includes coverage of Mike's survey. And you can learn more about the Mega Flyover at our Web site, npr.org.

Mike Fay, thank you.

Dr. FAY: Thank you.

CHADWICK: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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