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Views of Africa
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Watch photographer George Steinmetz in action in his ultralight.
George Steinmetz

Listen to conservationalist Mike Fay describe his Africa Megaflyover.
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Views of Africa

By David Quammen
Photographs by George Steinmetz

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Fay's intent with the Megaflyover is to document the ecological dimensions of that variousness. His conceptual starting point was the World Wildlife Fund map of 104 African ecoregions and the Human Footprint project, conceived by Eric W. Sanderson and a team of colleagues at WCS and Columbia University. Sanderson's group used nine different geographic data sets (measuring factors such as road density, railways, population density, nighttime lighting) to represent the weight of human influence all over the planet, including Africa. Fay wanted to cover as many of the 104 regions as time, budget, and politics would allow, in order to collect an enormous body of data reflecting incremental gradients between wilderness and urban glare, between stewardship and abuse, between what is possible and what is actually happening on the ground. Then he would present this database to decision-makers and allocators of money—in Africa, in the U.S. Congress, wherever—and say: Here's some information that might be relevant to your resources-and-security planning.

He recruited Ragg, an experienced bush pilot (and, in an earlier life, a successful optometrist in Austria), who offered his flying skills and the use of his two vintage airplanes, one for primary data gathering, one for support. Ragg in turn enlisted his fellow Austrian, Mario Scherer, who had found African bush flying a lively change from his recent work as a war-crimes investigator in Kosovo. Fay drummed up support from various sources—the Human Footprint lab at WCS, the WILD Foundation, the Bateleurs (an Africa-based organization of bush pilots volunteering for conservation), and, as chief financial sponsor, the National Geographic Society. The first takeoff was on June 8, 2004, from Swartkop Air Force Base near Pretoria, soon after which—OK, it was five minutes—Fay's network of digital gizmos suffered an outage. The camera quit, the computers went to battery power, and he sniffed a hint of electrical fire. Oh well, he thought, better a data-system meltdown than full-on engine failure within sight of the runway. He re-rigged.

Hopping his way across southern Africa and then northward on a sinuous chain of one-day flights, Fay arranged collaborations wherever possible with local conservationists, field scientists, or national agencies, assisting them with their aerial-survey needs as well as adding data to his own comprehensive trove. In Namibia he worked with Keith Leggett, a researcher tracing movement patterns of desert-dwelling elephants. In Tanzania he helped David Moyer and other members of a WCS team, in conjunction with TANAPA, the national parks agency, on an assessment of crucial ecological corridors connecting protected areas. In Chad he partnered with Malachie Dolmia, a young scientist at the Ministry of Environment, to look for populations of Barbary sheep, dorcas gazelles, and other large mammals in areas outside the Chadian national parks. In Kenya he offered flight hours to Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the eminent pachyderm expert and founder of Save the Elephants. In Niger, besides teaming with Ascani and SOS Faune, he got crucial help from Hubert Planton, a consulting conservationist, and coordinated his mission with the Directorate of Fish and Wildlife, through its director, Ali Harouna. Wherever he went, Fay tried to complement the aerial data-gathering with contacts, conversations, and observations on the ground. There was so much to learn and, for his purposes, very little that wasn't relevant.

Many computer crashes, camera shutdowns, and other minor problems have followed that first glitch above Swartkop. Most were easily repaired. There have also been a few dire aviation scares, caused by high winds, drastic loss of oil pressure, and other forms of mischance. But Fay is persistent—sometimes, in Peter Ragg's candid view, crazily and obnoxiously so. By the time I met them in Niger, Fay and his pilots (accompanied intermittently by Ragg's pilot wife, Hannelore) had flown 600 hours, crisscrossing 16 countries, usually at about 500 feet (150 meters) above the ground. The vertical camera, firing steadily at three shots a minute, had taken about 92,000 images. One of the Cessnas had gotten a new engine. Both planes needed maintenance.

Team spirit was in disrepair too. Tensions had grown. Flying a Cessna four or five hours a day at low elevation, day after day, for six months, gets exhausting. And flying in the Sahara during the period of harmattan, dry easterly winds, is harder on planes and pilots than flying over the plush canopy of a tropical forest. A sandstorm can be deadly. Fine dust (along the desert's southern edge, where there's some dry soil, not just sand) carries subtler dangers. Such dust sometimes rises even on light winds, filling the air at low elevations with a brown haze that erases the horizon, threatening vertigo. A pilot caught in that guck might steer into a hillside or, if he ignored his instruments for a moment too long, lose track of horizontality altogether and slam-dunk himself into the ground. Dusty blur-outs had bedeviled Fay's group in Chad and continued to cause anxiety during the weeks I was with them in Niger. After our first desert flight, Ragg told me, the new air filter he'd installed was already filthy. He scooped out a tablespoon's worth of powdered Sahara. Not good. A plane's engine must breathe. And grit in the cylinders—ugh. Plus, what could you see, what could you accomplish? Unless conditions improve, Ragg argued, we should abort the Niger sequence and get out of here. "It's a waste of fuel, it's a waste of time, it's a waste of engine," he said. "And at the end of the day"—that is, if a plane choked and went down—"it's a waste of life."

Fay's view, conveyed to me while we were aloft with Mario, was more sanguine. Flying in bad air was like "living the life of a carp rather than living the life of a trout," he said. "I'd rather be a trout." But if the food was on the bottom, in murky water, he'd be a carp. As for me—at least until my stomach adjusted to the low-altitude scanning, the sepia air, the smeary horizon, the tight circling, and the fumes vented by that auxiliary tank—I felt more like a dyspeptic walleye.

But visibility improved, off and on, and we kept flying. From the air over Niger we enjoyed some notable sights: a pair of addaxes skittering like sand crabs along the lee of a linear dune, seven Barbary sheep galloping up a kori, sausage-like towers of dark sandstone along the escarpment of the Djado Plateau, camels standing stuporous and serene in the middle of nowhere. Near one village we gawked down at a cluster of saltmaking pits, each pit a nice disk, variously sized, variously colored, shining azure or turquoise or coppery green from the mineral solutions of their individual sumps, all together like a necklace of bright-colored jewels.

Mostly what we observed and recorded, though, were variations on the theme of absence: absence of people, absence of roads, absence of wildlife, of water, of vegetation—absence of topography itself. Sometimes we looked down and saw nothing but beige flatness, just nothing, even when the visibility was good. Some days we flew a 400-mile (650-kilometer) loop without glimpsing a single animal, and dozens of miles without spotting so much as a plant. Never mind. Even absence is a form of data. Niger is a country of austere landscapes, spectacularly desolate in their own ways but further desolated by recent human-caused losses. The addax is nearly extinct here, for instance, and the Barbary sheep, and the desert cheetah; their disappearance from remote habitat areas may correlate with the presence of four-by-four tracks, indicating unimpeded access by poachers. Such tracks show clearly from 500 feet (150 meters) up. Measures could be taken. Fay will offer all his findings to the Nigerien officials responsible for protecting what remains.

One thing that remains, tangible on the ground and indelible in my memory, is the assemblage of dunes at Arakao. Disappointed at having seen no sheep in the Aïr Massif, suddenly we were thrilled. We all pressed to the windows, even Ascani, the old Niger hand. Then, as we circled wide around those great soft mounds to admire them from all angles, another odd sight came into view: a large green oval. It was a pond, evidently spring-fed from beneath the sands. Water?

Fay peered down for a moment and then, having noticed something, tapped a note into his Tablet: "no animal tracks." It hadn't struck me, but of course: A water hole out here should attract gazelles and other mammals from many miles around—attract them, that is, if any exist. He tapped again: "4x4." Meaning, tire marks. An absence of animal sign, a presence of human sign. Cause and effect? Anyway, data.

I was still mesmerized by the dunes. They seemed the perfect icon for what Mike Fay has strived to produce, first in his Megatransect, and now by way of his Megaflyover: a vast aggregation of tiny particles, in the form of data, heaped together for larger effect. The individual grains are innumerable and insignificant. The task of collecting them is tedious, arduous, and risky. It couldn't be done by just anyone. It takes a dry mind and a will like desert wind.

The tricky part that we should remember, and he too, is that Arakao is more than a huge sandpile. It's an uncannily beautiful huge sandpile. The last challenge for Fay, as he processes and presents his data, is parallel to that miracle of beauty, but slightly different. From a mountainous pile of facts and photographs he must deliver meaning.

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