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Africa's New Parks On Assignment

Africa's New Parks On Assignment

Africa's New Parks
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer's technical notes.

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Joel K. Bourne, Jr.

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Gabon's Green Gamble
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By David QuammenPhotographs by Michael Nichols

The president of Gabon sets aside a big chunk of his country, preserving a little bit of Africa for everyone.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

On the morning of August 1, 2002, in Libreville, Gabon, President El Hadj Omar Bongo summoned his ministers to an urgent meeting. Almost no one except Mr. Bongo knew what was up. Did the government face some sudden financial crunch—related, maybe, to falling petroleum revenues and rising deficits? Was there an international crisis, putting all Africa and the rest of the world on nervous alert? Had civil war broken out again somewhere in the region, central Africa, within which Omar Bongo in the course of his 35-year incumbency had earned a certain reputation as a peacemaker? Would the president undertake a mission of mediation? Even as his ministers gathered in the cabinet room of the presidential palace, they had no idea what the day's business would be.

Adding to their puzzlement was the fact that three outsiders had also turned up for the meeting—a British biologist named Lee White, employed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of New York as head of its Gabon program; a Cameroonian biologist named Andre Kamdem Toham, based in Libreville for the World Wildlife Fund; and an American ecologist and explorer, J. Michael Fay, a WCS employee more familiar to some of those present as the "man who walked across Gabon." The minister of tourism turned to White, an acquaintance, and asked: "What are you doing here?"

The cabinet room is an impressive chamber, big as a tennis court, stately as a church, with two great mahogany tables running up the center. At the front is a raised presidential podium, like a postmodern, minimalist throne. Each of the tables is partitioned into ministerial cubicles equipped with telephones and other electronic communications gear. Large plasma video screens face the tables for audiovisual briefings, with a separate screen positioned to serve the podium. The ministers took their assigned places. After a slight delay, while White and Fay struggled hastily to patch a laptop computer into the room's system, the president entered, a self-possessed man with a wide mustache and a warm smile, looking dapper in a bright yellow business suit. He said nothing. He sat down and, with a nod, signaled his minister of forest economy, Émile Doumba, to start the proceedings. Doumba announced simply that Dr. Fay and Dr. White would address the group on a matter of high interest to the president.

"And so I just launch into my dog and pony show," Mike Fay said, recounting the scene during one of our quiet talks in Libreville months later, his wounds from a recent elephant goring now nearly healed, his zeal undampened by that near-death experience. "The president had a little TV screen in front of his face, and he's staring into it, you know, intently." The ministers soon were engrossed too. Fay, better adapted to bushwhacking through swamps than to cabinet-level politicking, was wearing a jacket and tie borrowed that morning from Lee White's closet. He'd brought his laptop, as he carries it everywhere, stuffed into a day pack. The summons to him and White had come on short notice, and the rushed distraction of solving the computer-compatibility problem had left him little time to gather his thoughts about what he would say. But, having delivered variants of the same spiel already to so many and such various audiences, he wasn't shy about winging it before a council of ministers. 

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Follow ecologist Mike Fay into the primordial world of Gabon's chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and other creatures rarely seen by human eyes.

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A large forest elephant churns up water as it charges toward a rival—and across your desktop.


The prospect of setting aside 11 percent of Gabon's unspoiled land for conservation and ecotourism presents a challenge: Once this vast pristine acreage is open to tourists, how will it remain pristine?

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?

The Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) is the largest viper in Africa, with large specimens weighing up to 40 pounds (20 kilograms) and growing over six feet (two meters) long. The Gaboon viper possesses the longest fangs of any venomous snake (up to two inches [five centimeters] in length), which deliver a highly toxic venom. If left untreated, a bite from this powerful snake is usually fatal.

—Alice J. Dunn

Did You Know?

Related Links
Gabon National Parks
Learn all about each of Gabon's 13 new national parks as well as other protected areas in the country.

Congo Basin Forest Partnership
The United States Agency for International Development provides an overview of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership and lists Web links for additional information on sustainable development.

IUCN—The World Conservation Union
Browse this site highlighting the World Commission on Protected Areas to learn more about worldwide efforts in conservation.  Explore links to the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, and special regions and themes the IUCN is pursuing, as well as efforts to enhance the effectiveness of protected areas management.

Wildlife Conservation Society in Gabon
Find out what this conservation organization is doing to help save Gabon's wildlife.


Collomb, Jean-Gael, and others. A First Look at Logging in Gabon. Global Forest Watch and World Resources Institute, 2000. Available online at

"U.S. 'Passionate' About Conserving Congo Basin Forest—U.S. Assistant Secretary Kansteiner Testifies to Congress." State Department Press Releases and Documents. March 11, 2003.

Walsh, Peter, and others. "Catastrophic Ape Decline in Western Equatorial Africa." Nature  (April 10, 2003), 611-14.


NGS Resources
Brandt, Anthony, and Mary Henrietta Kinsley. Travels in West Africa. National Geographic Books, 2002.

"Visit a New World," National Geographic (April 2002), Behind the Scenes.

Frank, Aliette. "Incredible Journey," National Geographic World (September 2001), 26-8.

Quammen, David. "End of the Line: Megatransect, Part III," National Geographic (August 2001), 74-103.

Quammen, David. "The Green Abyss: Megatransect, Part II," National Geographic (March 2001), 2-37.

Shnayerson, Michael. "The Uncharted World of Michael Fay," National Geographic Adventure (July/August 2001), 80-86,131.
Quammen, David. "Megatransect: Across 1,200 Miles of Untamed Africa on Foot," National Geographic (October 2000), 2-29. 


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