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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Explorer Mike Fay

Air Date: Week of

n a National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR’s Alex Chadwick profiles Mike Fay. The wildlife biologist is on a trek into parts of Africa that have been uninhabited and unexplored for years.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In central Africa a wildlife biologist is on one of the great treks of our time. He's walking more than 1,000 miles across what may be the world's last great wilderness. Along the way he's been recording his adventures for the National Geographic Radio Expeditions. NPR's Alex Chadwick reports.

(Ambient sounds: insects, birds)

CHADWICK: His name is Mike Fay. He created the project he calls mega-transect, as in big walk.

FAY: We've been out here for two months now.

CHADWICK: That's him. From his audio journal recorded after the walk began, more than a year ago.

FAY: It included 60 days of tromping out in the forest. That's a long time, certainly the longest time I've ever been out in the woods.

CHADWICK: He's been out longer now, in central Africa. A huge region, largely uninhabited except by tropical forest and rivers and wildlife.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: The audio journal is one of the last chores in a long, tiring day. Mike Fay is often worn out.

FAY: This way of life, this forest, the wild place, the trees, the whole world out here. It's a kind of record of what it was like.

CHADWICK: He's lived in central Africa for more than 20 years, in the Peace Corps and then studying gorillas. Now as an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His mega-transect project, go see what's there on foot for 1,250 miles through what many of us think of as the worst terrain on Earth. After all, crowded as the world is, no one chooses to live here. It's hot, swampy, thick with disease and bugs. This is the jungle.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: A photographer for National Geographic, Nick Nichols, is along for part of the walk. At his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago, I asked about his friend Mike Fay.

NICHOLS: Just so your listeners know, this is not some physical specimen. You look at this guy, and he looks just like the rest of us and maybe even not as much as the rest of us. He's got this incredible force of will to just push, push, push.

CHADWICK: Nick Nichols takes pictures. The magazine helps pay for the expedition. The first of three articles on the mega-transect is in the Geographic that's out now. Mike Fay takes notes and collects data that his photographer friend says conservationists and African governments will be using for decades.

NICHOLS: The rule is, everything that's on the path goes into the notebook, as far as elephant dung, gorilla dung, things that animals have been eating. He's writing down all the tree species and stuff like that. And he does record, when he runs into monkey groups or certain kinds of birds, he'll make sound recordings.

(Bird calls)

CHADWICK: Another entry in Mike Fay's audio journal.

FAY: Today is the seventeenth of October, 1999. We walked quite a bit today.

CHADWICK: There are no roads, no foot paths, only animal trail. In the forest, everything and everyone follows where the elephants go.

FAY: Shortly after Ogomo [phonetic spelling] camp, the elephant trails became dominant. We saw one rubber tree that was broken already. After that we haven't seen any sign of human beings at all, just lots of elephants.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: By now, Mike Fay has learned to imitate elephant calls, a useful skill for unexpected encounters like this one he recorded as it happened and later described for his journal.

(Flowing water)

FAY: There we've seen the elephant. He's about ten meters in the woods here.


FAY: Anyway, the elephant's sitting there. It's asleep and when we first see it. A little bit confused and not quite sure what's going on. It's like in the old elephant rumble.

(Thunder; Fay rumbles)

FAY: That soothes him right down into just standing. He keeps trying to get scent, you know, just trying to see if there really is an elephant or what the hell's going on. Gave us one little bluff kind of slip of the trunk. Nothing else, and then finally he got our scent, perked his trunk up, and kind of realized, okay, humans. And I turned to calm him down as he was bolting but it was too late. But he stuck with us for about five minutes, at about 20 feet. That's pretty good.

(Thunder; rain)

CHADWICK: No one could journey alone in this wilderness for long. Dr. Fay began with a dozen or more pygmies from a village in the Republic of Congo. Trackers and bearers, some of them friends for more than a decade.

(Various voices)

CHADWICK: They are used to hardship, but no one they know, probably no one ever, has tried a trek like this one.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: Up at five, break camp, pack, walk, stop for notes and data, move on. Find water, tend wounds. The miles and the days go on.

FAY: The chiggers are what they call sand fleas. They look just like your old dog flea. They get into your skin, especially around the toenails, and burrow down and stick the abdomen in the flesh. And that's where they get the nutrients to grow their egg sac.

NICHOLS: Mike particularly has a bad problem with foot worms, which I do, too.

CHADWICK: Photographer Nick Nichols.

NICHOLS: What it does is, it eats a little trail through the flesh. And they'll sometimes live in you 11, 12, days. It's really itchy, but the big problem you get is infections. And you're just going down.

CHADWICK: But these guys don't stay down. By December, Mike Fay and the pygmies are deep in the Congo forest where no one in living memory has been. The animals they meet are unafraid.

(Ambient forest sounds)

FAY: The rubber trees here haven't been tapped. The monkeys seem to be naive and very friendly. No indications of humans having been up here. There are no machete cuts or any kind of indications that human activity has been recent.

CHADWICK: The mega-transect is about a qualified field scientist recording what's actually here. What parts are most important to protect.

FAY: There is a vine forest along the Libway [phonetic spelling] River.

CHADWICK: Central Africa is poor. There's little to sell but mining claims and logging concessions. And now, there is the technology to use them.

FAY: They come down there with the bulldozers and their skidders and their teams of guys who are there to cut, and they're hunting like crazy, too. And they'll destroy this place. That's for sure. The elephants will now be the prey instead of the happy-go-lucky guys that they seem to be at this point in time here. Very calm, these elephants. You know, they don't look terrorized at all.

(Animals calls)

CHADWICK: Dr. Mike Fay on his mega-transect across the Congo Basin.

FAY: I just don't want to go outside. I want to stay inside the forest.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: For Radio Expeditions this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

(Animal calls up and under)

CURWOOD: Our story on ecologist Mike Fay was produced by Van Williamson. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.



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