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Salopek received a degree in environmental biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1984. Salopek has worked intermittently as a commercial fisherman, most recently with the scallop fleet out of New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1991. His career in journalism began in 1985 when his motorcycle broke in Roswell, New Mexico and he took a police-reporting job at the local newspaper to earn repair money. In 1993, he won a James Aronson Award honorable mention.
Salopek reported for the Chicago Tribune from 1996 until April 30, 2009, writing about Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked for National Geographic from 1992–1995, visiting Chad, Sudan, Senegal, Niger, Mali, and Nigeria. The October 1995 cover story for National Geographic was Salopek's piece on Africa's mountain gorillas. He reported on U.S.-Mexico border issues for the El Paso Times. In 1990, he was Gannett News Service's bureau chief in Mexico City.
In 1998 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for two articles profiling the Human Genome Diversity Project. In 2001, he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for work covering Africa. Columbia University President George Rupp presented Salopek with the prize, "for his reporting on the political strife and disease epidemics ravaging Africa, witnessed firsthand as he traveled, sometimes by canoe, through rebel-controlled regions of the Congo."
Salopek was a general assignment reporter on the Tribune's Metropolitan staff, reporting on immigration, the environment and urban affairs. He spent several years as the Tribune's bureau chief in Johannesburg. Salopek reported from Sudan for a 2003 National Geographic story, "Shattered Sudan: Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace." He co-wrote "Who Rules the Forest?" from Africa for National Geographic in September 2005, examining the effects of war in Central Africa.
In the Fall of 2009, Salopek taught an undergraduate seminar on reporting from the developing world at Princeton University as part of Princeton's Journalism Program.
Salopek was detained in Darfur, Sudan by Sudanese government officials on August 6, 2006, along with his Sudanese interpreter Daoud Hari (aka "Suleiman Abakar Moussa") and Chadian driver Abdulraham Anu (aka "Ali"), while on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine. When Salopek failed to show at a long-scheduled appointment on August 17, National Geographic became concerned. His last contact with his wife had been on August 5. On August 26, 2006 Salopek was charged with espionage, passing information illegally, writing "false news," and entering Sudan without a visa, in a Sudanese court in al-Fashir, North Darfur.
Chris Johns, National Geographic's editor in chief, said Salopek "had no agenda other than to fairly and accurately report on the Sahel. He is a world-recognized journalist of the highest standing, with a deep knowledge and respect for the continent of Africa and its people." The Chicago Tribune released a statement saying, "Our colleague and dear friend, Paul Salopek, is one of the most accomplished and admired journalists of our time. He is not a spy. Our fervent hope is that the authorities in Sudan will recognize his innocence and quickly allow Paul to return home to his wife, Linda, and to his colleagues ... He began a scheduled leave of absence from the newspaper earlier this month and was traveling in Chad reporting a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine before he was detained. Since we learned of Paul's detention in Sudan, we have been working diligently to seek his release. ... We are deeply worried about Paul and his well being, and appeal to the government of Sudan to return him safely home."
Defense attorney Omer Hassan requested a three-week trial delay, but was given only a two-week continuance, after a 40-minute hearing, delaying the trial until September 10. Hassan argued that the three men could not get a fair trial because the governor of North Darfur had publicly referred to Salopek as a criminal. The judge ordered an end to prejudicial remarks. Salopek recited his name, age and marital status during the hearing. Salopek had traveled in Chad near the border with Sudan. When he was arrested he was carrying two U.S. passports and satellite maps of the conflict area in Darfur, printed from the internet. Sudanese officials view the passports and maps as evidence against Salopek. Chris Johns, Editor in Chief and photographer for National Geographic magazine, said, "As one who has worked in Africa for more than 15 years, I have two passports. There are many reasons for that. For example, during apartheid days, if I needed to cover South Africa, it was not in my best interest [when entering black-controlled African countries] to have a South Africa stamp in my passport.
Salopek telephoned National Geographic and Tribune editors. He was visited by a congressional delegation led by U.S. Representative Christopher Shays. Shays, in an interview given on August 26, said Salopek "did a very foolish thing coming into the country without a visa and he knows that... He knew he made a mistake. But it's not in anybody's interest--in their or our governments--to have this blown out of proportion. This is a reporter doing what reporters do. They don't have any designs against the government. They're just reporting what they see. He had a very gentle presence and he was very appreciative of our being there. We just told him we would pass on to his wife that he loved her very much and he was looking forward to seeing her. We were deeply concerned that they had arrested someone and held him so long without letting his family know about it.
Two U.S. congressmen visited Salopek on August 22 for an hour at a police station in al Fashir. Salopek said he was being held in a 20-foot-by-20-foot cell with 15 others and no toilet facilities. Salopek was later moved to better quarters. Representative Brian Higgins, and Cameron Hume, the U.S. charge d'affaires to Sudan, also attended the meeting. U.S. Senator Barack Obama visited Salopek in Africa, and said he was monitoring the situation with the U.S. State Department. Obama, urging the United States government to act, said "This is unacceptable and I expect the U.S. government to take this with the utmost seriousness." 
The presiding judge in Salopek's case had previously sentenced Slovenian writer and activist Tomo Križnar on August 14, to two years in prison on charges of spying and publishing false information. Križnar admitted entering the country without a visa but denied spying on the Sudanese government. The judge had also ordered the deportation of an American citizen, described by the U.S. embassy in Sudan as a college student carrying out research.
On September 9, one day before the trial was scheduled to start, the three of them were freed. In a press conference, Salopek thanked New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Richardson had traveled to Sudan on the 8th to meet with al-Bashir and persuaded him to release all three, convincing him that "Paul Salopek and the two Chadian members of our delegation were legitimate journalists, were respected journalists, they were doing their job, they were not spies." Salopek's wife, Linda Lynch, and Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski also traveled with Richardson to Sudan. Linda Lynch later nominated Richardson for the Nobel Prize along with 12 congressmen.
Salopek left the Chicago Tribune on April 30, 2009.
In 2008 Daoud Hari published a memoir of the ordeal called The Translator (New York: Random House) in which he details what happened. Hari, a native Sudanese living in a Chadian refugee camp, had been operating in the region for a while as a translator and guide for NGOs and the press who needed an escort across the Chad border into the dangerous war-torn Darfur region. He had been using the false name of "Suleiman Abakar Moussa" because in Chad, only Chadian citizens are allowed to work, so Hari had created false papers to appear as a Chadian citizen. Hari's trip escorting Salopek into the war zone was his seventh, so by this time the Sudanese government had become aware of his activities because of published articles in the world press which were embarrassing to the government - he was labeled a "spy".
Hari's driver for the trip, Ali, had a brand new Toyota pick-up truck which was very valuable - the three men were soon stopped by a small rebel band with sympathy to the government, detained, beaten and then ordered to be shot - in his memoir, Hari presumes that if they were killed it was so the rebels would appear to be killing spies, and not appear as car-thieves. Through amazing luck and skillful negotiations, the three men were able to save their lives and were transferred from the rebel group to the Sudanese military.
The (North) Sudan military held them in jail and severely beat them, Salopek almost died from hunger.
Eventually they were transferred to the civilian courts and further detained in jail. Because of Salopek's high profile and connections he was able to garner the release of himself, Daoud Hari and the driver Ali.
In January 2013, Salopek embarked on a seven-year walk, along one of the routes taken by early humans to migrate out of Africa. The journey will cover more than 20,000 km, beginning in Africa, in Ethiopia, across the Middle East and through Asia, via Alaska and down the western edge of the Americas to the southern tip of Chile. The project, entitled Out of Eden, is partly funded by the National Geographic Magazine. Salopek aims to cover current major global stories by walking alongside the people who live them.
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