Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

One Personís Positive Impact

May 21, 2010

One Personís Positive Impact

As of the summer of 2002, the West African nation of Gabon had no system of national parks. What it did have was an abundance of wildlife-- free-ranging forest buffalo, leopards, red river hogs, mandrills, chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and hippos; serpents like the famed Gaboon viper; and in the realm of bird life, penguins, parrots, petrels, pipits, and hundreds of other glorious species.

By the fall of 2002, Gabon had dedicated 10% of its land to a national park system designed to protect all these mammals, snakes, and birds and the plant life surrounding them. Let that statistic sink in for a moment: Imagine what the United States would be like if one-tenth of our land was set aside for national parks! At present, the U.S. figure is 3.6% (the majority of park acreage is located in Alaska).

As someone who lived and worked in Gabon for 14 months (back in 1983-1984) I have for years admired the governmentís foresight in making such an amazing commitment, one that has had worldwide impact over the last 8 years. (This statement should not be inferred as blanket admiration for the Bongo regime in Gabon, by any means.)

And Ė even though Iíve never met himóIíve always been proud too of American Michael Fay for his role in this conservation success story. So I was more than happy to see that Nicholas Kristof devoted his Sunday column in the New York Times last week to Gabonís successesówith a mention of Mike Fay.

Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based organization that runs the Bronx Zoo (and numerous worldwide field projects), and the ever-famous National Geographic Society, Fay did something I still canít get over: he walked across the nations of Congo and Gabon, from interior Africa straight through the thick forest to the Atlantic Coast. Along the way, he documented details of the animal and plant life, and his companion photographer Mike Nichols produced amazing still shots of the variety of life:

megatransect photos

Fay walked 2000 miles. Thatís quite a statistic, but it hardly conveys the hardships involved. For 15 months, Fayís team persevered across the land. At times they hacked with machetes through incredibly dense vines, or crossed raging rivers, or contended with the outstanding assortment or flying or crawling insects that burrow into or bite human flesh. Fay developed malaria.

Thereís no other way to say it: Fay was and is a force of nature. Throughout everything, he pushed on, and made it to the coast. (And then promptly called his parents, on his cellphone.)

Everyone- including those in Gabonís government itself- agrees that the MegaTransect (as Fay dubbed the walk) was instrumental in Gabonís decision to set up a 13-park national system.

Not many of us can organize a cross-country trek, or help convince a world leader to move forward the cause of animal conservation. But we must never doubt the power of one personís positive impact. Jane Goodall readily comes to mind as a famous example, because of her decades of work on behalf of chimpanzees, but none of us needs be a household name to make a difference.

For the thousands and thousands of people in this country and world-wide who spend more hours, and more money, that we really have comfortably available, to help feral cats or at-risk dogs, or rabbits or horses or birds in need, we can take heart in learning about people like Michael Fay.

Selected Works

Nonfiction
Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.