Published: March 2007

Ivory Wars

Zakouma Elephants

Last Stand in Zakouma

While poachers are slaughtering some of the last surviving central African elephants for their tusks, a refuge in Chad gives this endangered species armed protection—and a fighting chance.

By J. Michael Fay
Photograph by Michael Nichols

(2008 Update:   Zakouma elephants could vanish within the next two to three years if poaching continues at current levels, according to recent population surveys. See more.)

The dead elephant, a huge bull, lay on his side, right leg curled as if in wrenching pain. Dirt covered the exposed eye—magic done by poachers to hide the carcass from vultures. The smell of musth and urine, of fresh death, hung over the mound of the corpse. It was a sight I had seen hundreds of times in central Africa. As I passed my hand over his body from trunk to tail, tears poured down my cheeks. I lifted the bull's ear. Lines of bright red blood bubbled and streamed from his lips, pooling in the dust. His skin was checkered with wrinkles. The base of his trunk was as thick as a man's torso. Deep fissures ran like rivers through the soles of his feet; in those lines, I could trace every step he had taken during his 30 years of life.

This elephant's ancestors had survived centuries of raiding by the armies of Arab and African sultans from the north in search of slaves and ivory. He had lived through civil wars and droughts, only to be killed today for a few pounds of ivory to satisfy human vanity in some distant land. There were tender blades of grass in his mouth. He and his friends had been peacefully roaming in the shaded forest, snapping branches filled with sweet gum. Then, the first gunshot exploded. He bolted, too late. Horses overtook him. Again and again, bullets pummeled his body. We counted eight small holes in his head. Bullets had penetrated the thick skin and lodged in muscle, bone, and brain before he fell. We heard 48 shots before we found him.

Souleyman Mando, the commander of our detachment of mounted park rangers, was silent. I sensed a dark need for revenge. The feeling was mutual.

"Next time, you will get them," I offered.

He feigned a smile. "Inshallah," he said.

In Zakouma National Park, antipoaching is dangerous business. Officially, guards are allowed to defend themselves if poachers shoot. Unofficially, it is shoot-to-kill on both sides, so better to be the first to pull the trigger. In the past eight years, six guards have been killed by poachers, and at least six poachers by guards.

I asked Souleyman how many shots he had fired. Three, he said. The others—Adoum, Yacoub, Issa, Attim, Brahim, Saleh, and Abdoulaye—had fired 21 shots. Still, the two poachers, whom Souleyman identified as Arab nomads, had escaped on horseback with their AK-47 and M14 assault rifles. There was a second pair of horsemen, too. Adoum had fired at them before they disappeared. No doubt, there was another wounded elephant, fleeing in frantic terror.

There is little love lost between our ragtag fighting force—a mix of sedentary tribesmen from local villages, some Arab, most Muslim—and the mounted Arab nomads who are the main culprits in the killing of Zakouma's elephants. Souleyman contemplated tracking the poachers, but now his men had a new obsession: ivory. Finding ivory in the bush provokes a fever in most Africans I have known; the guards, dedicated as they were to protecting the park, were no different.

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