J. Michael Fay
When civil war broke out in the Republic of Congo in 1997, Mike Fay was working for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the northern part of the country, managing the 100,000-acre Nouabalé-Ndoki national park. "Get out!" implored his boss. "It's too dangerous."
Fay, someone who had already spent two decades working on conservation issues in Africa, is famous among his peers for getting big things done under hair-raising conditions; he is not well known for taking orders. He ignored his boss and made his way to the nation's capital, Brazzaville — where $50,000 in cash and unreimbursed receipts worth $400,000 for the nonprofit were sitting in a WCS office. He hired a gang of rebels to take him there, grabbed the receipts, headed to the airport, snagged the key to an unattended Cessna, and — with tracer fire lighting up the air around him — piloted away from the spreading chaos.
Two years later, Fay was back in Africa, this time to embark on his most legendary exploit, the "MegaTransect" — a 467-day, 3,000-mile hike in a compass-straight line from northeastern Congo to the coast of Gabon. The immediate purpose was to document, record, and measure — via audio recordings, still photography, video, and GPS — the astonishing biodiversity of the central African rain forest. The long-term goal: to make the case for protecting some of the last remaining true wilderness in the world. During the transect, Fay faced down charging elephants, armed poachers, and a near-deadly bout of malaria. "You never know what is going to happen," Fay says. "But as a conservationist, you are like a preacher. You just gotta believe and keep going."
After the trip, Fay met with Gabon's president, Omar Bongo Ondima, who was so impressed that he agreed to set aside nearly 11 percent of Gabon's land mass for 13 national parks. Then he asked Fay to help manage them.
The MegaTransect provided a template that Fay went on to deploy in future projects, like 2004's "MegaFlyover" — 70,000 miles of low-altitude flight over Africa, taking pictures every 20 seconds — and a 333-day 2,050-mile hike through the California redwoods. "He is one of the most effective conservationists out there," says John Robinson, conservation officer at the WCS.
Now 60, Fay is helping oversee another project in Gabon: a giant marine park comprising 23 percent of the nation's territorial waters, around 18,000 square miles. Dealing with corruption and the devastation wrought by resource extraction isn't always easy, but Fay seems upbeat. "I just can't sit idly by and watch industrial processes unfold unfettered," he says. "I gotta intervene." –Andrew Leonard