Naturalist Michael Fay spent part of his early career in St. Louis, going to graduate school at Washington University and working with the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter Raven.
Since then, Fay has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic.
He’s probably best known for his large-scale surveys of plants and wildlife. In 1997, he set out on the MegaTransect, a survey that would take him more than 2,000 miles on foot across the forests of the Congo Basin in Central Africa.
Fay is back in St. Louis this week for some speaking engagements. St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra talked with him about his African journey, and what it did for international conservation efforts.
FAY: It was a real expedition, because we were 13 people, most of them pygmies, one white man, myself. You know, we were like an epic voyage out there. Every day you have to find food for 13 people, you have to keep everyone healthy, you have to be the mother, the father, the coach, everybody, for all these guys.
LACAPRA: What did your team of local people think of you?
FAY: Well, you know, OK, this guy wants to hire us to walk across the forest for a year? Sure, we’ll do it, you know. I don’t think they ever understood exactly why we were doing it. And they certainly got depressed after three or four months out on the trail. So I had to switch teams about halfway through, because those guys were just burned out, basically.
At one point we were in this very small village on a footpath that we were crossing, and I told these guys, do not drink the water, do not drink the water, because there’s hepatitis in this village.
And sure enough one of the pygmies gets hepatitis like, probably two or three weeks later. And the first reaction of those guys to something like that is to scarify them with razor blades and bleed them, you know, to get the bad blood out.
And so here you’ve got this highly infectious guy, who all of a sudden everybody’s touching his blood, and I just had these nightmares of the whole crew getting hepatitis. And we had to carry that guy for about seven days to get him to a river, where we could actually get a dugout canoe to get him out.
But he lived. It was hard. But we didn’t lose a single person, and it was an expedition of a lifetime, for sure.
LACAPRA: Was it all worth it?
FAY: Oh absolutely. I mean I always look at these things as, what do we get, for real, on the ground, rather than publicity, or education, or something like that. I always say, OK did we get a protected area, did we change policy, did we do something tangible. And in this case we got 13 national parks in Gabon, totaling over ten million acres.
And those parks are still very much protected, and real, and logging just like I thought has completely surrounded every single one of those parks in the interim. So if we didn’t do it when we did it, none of that forest would have been saved from logging.
LACAPRA: And it’s logging for hardwoods, or?
FAY: Yeah, all that wood is cut for export market. And it goes primarily to Asia, Europe, and the United States.
LACAPRA: In case people can’t tell from the background sounds, I’m speaking with you outdoors, on the grounds of the Missouri Botanical Garden, where you camped out overnight. Why did you do that, instead of staying in a hotel?
FAY: Well, because hotels give me the heebie jeebies! After the MegaTransect I rented an apartment in Washington, DC, because I was going to write up my work there. And I hadn’t been in a bed for a year and a half, and I spent one night in this apartment, and I immediately just fled, you know.
And I went to Rock Creek Park, which is the big National Park in the middle of Washington, DC, and it was like oh my God, this is perfect, this is beautiful, I can sleep outside, the birds are here, there’s deer, there’s trees, you know it’s forest cover, and I thought, you know, why would I ever want to live inside?