National Geographic : 2003 Sep
GABON IS RICH IN EARTH'S RAREST COMMODITY TROPICAL FORESTS LITTLE TOUCHED BY HUMANS. n 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, cen tral 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 meet ing-a British biologist named Lee White, employed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of New York as head of its Gabon pro gram; 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 cen ter. 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 *See the "Megatransect" series in the October 2000, March 2001, and August 2001 issues. 54 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * SEPTEMBER 2003 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 com puter into the room's system, the president entered, a self-possessed man with a wide mus tache 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, Emile 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 dur ing 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 star ing 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 every where, stuffed into a day pack. The summons to A rare clearing in a sea of forest, the mile long Langoue Bai was carved out by ele phants digging in the mud. Mike Fay calls it the most important discovery of his 2,000 mile Megatransect across central Africa.