Real Hero Gives Keynote Address

By Monica Pratt, ArcUser Editor

ArcUser October-December 2001

"I can't see you out there and that's probably a good thing," said J. Michael Fay as he peered apprehensively into the darkened hall where most of the 11,000 attendees at this year's Esri International User Conference sat.

Michael Fay giving keynote address.

Michael Fay giving the keynote address.

The keynote speaker, who trekked across a nearly uninhabited swath of the wildest forest in central Africa, concluded his remarks by characterizing the audience of GIS professionals as "the most powerful group that assembles on the planet."

"I think about GIS and what it's about. It's about managing the landscape, quite simply. Whether it's oil or logging or crime prevention or conservation, it's about all that is living and all that is not on this planet. In this room today you're all here—the managers of the landscape," he said. "I think you may be the most powerful group that assembles on the planet because you really do hold, kind of, the keys to the future. You can visualize the landscape and understand cause and effect and you can make change happen."

Fay trekking through central Africa.

Photograph courtesy of
Michael Nichols/National Geographic Magazine

In a speech that was part travelogue, part a plea for the environment, the Wildlife Conservation Society biologist described his 15-month quest to document "the last wild place on earth." Fay was featured in the August 2001 issue of U.S. News and World Report as one of the "Real heroes—20 men and women who risked it all to make a difference."

The idea for the trip came to Fay while flying a plane, which he restored, over Texas-sized sections of Africa. Fay envisioned an excursion that would be a super-sized transect or "Megatransect," as he dubbed it. A line-transect survey is a standard method used in field biology for sampling an ecosystem. Fay was formally trained as a botanist before he changed the focus of his research and obtained a doctorate based on research with western lowland gorillas. This expedition was sponsored by the National Geographic Magazine and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Fay set out on September 20, 1999, with a group of Bambendjellé Pygmies on a trek across the Republic of Congo and Gabon. The trip wasn't easy. His team crossed thick bush, swamps, and mountain ranges. They traversed areas where no human is known to have ventured. "We really suffered out there," he said. One of the effects of such a strenuous journey is that "Everything gets pared down to the bare minimum." His wardrobe for the entire trip consisted of a pair of Teva sandals, a pair of shorts, and a T-shirt. Disease was always a problem. Keeping the team going was a challenge. They encountered hazards large and small—from truculent three-ton elephants to areas that were reportedly home to the tiny, but quite deadly, Ebola virus.

Although the trip was filled with physical hardship and danger, it was tremendously fulfilling for Fay. He found what he had been seeking for many years—wildlife in abundance. As he told the audience, "In Gabon, this place where for 70 kilometers around you know there is not a single human being and you're completely alone, and wild nature is just kind of functioning just as it always has-that's when I knew I was the luckiest guy on earth." In characterizing the size of animal populations that he observed, Fay said, "I found many orders of magnitude more than I expected to find." Many of the chimpanzees, elephants, gorillas, and other animals he encountered had never seen people and had social structures that don't exist in areas where people are present.

Throughout the trip, Fay recorded GPS points every 20 seconds, took copious field notes, and made video and audio recordings. Dispatches charting the progress of the expedition were sent via satellite phone, and descriptions and images were posted on the National Geographic Society Web site. On December 18, 2000, Fay and his team arrived at their final destination-a Gabonese beach so pristine and untouched that elephants foraged along it and hippopotamuses surfed its waves.

Since his return to the United States, Fay has been analyzing his notes, recordings, GPS data, and samples. For the keynote address, Fay worked with Esri staff to create a prototype GIS that demonstrates how the tremendous quantity of data he collected on the Megatransect can be integrated, analyzed, and displayed. Fay will enlist this technology as part of his mission to preserve this relatively unscathed portion of the African forest ecosystem. See the accompanying article, "Visualizing Megatransect Data," for more information on this prototype GIS.

Fay challenged his audience to decide to "make this planet a better place to live" by thinking about and preserving the earth's natural systems. "If that decision can permeate the workplace and the ethos of whatever it is you do, I think that this planet will have a significantly brighter future," he said.


"In Gabon, this place where for 70 kilometers around you know there is not a single human being and you're completely alone, and wild nature is just kind of functioning just as it always has—that's when I knew I was the luckiest guy on earth."

Fay looking into the distance

Photograph courtesy of
Michael Nichols/National Geographic Magazine

Learn how you can contribute to saving a portion of the Congo.

Table of Contents for the October–December 2001 issue

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