By now, other guards had joined us, and pity for the dead bull gave way to a frenetic chopping of tusks. Taking a knife, Ndjongo sliced the rough gray armor of the inch-thick (three centimeters) hide covering the trunk, revealing a layer of white gristle and dark muscle. As the knife worked deeper, two tubular nostrils, pure white and smooth as enamel, came into view; hours before, they had siphoned fresh water from a pool. He threw the severed trunk aside like a slain serpent. Then, with an ax, he chopped at the flat plate of face bone. His back bore the sheen of sweat as he chipped away for nearly an hour. Extracting a deeply embedded conical tooth—easily marred by a stray blow—was precise, delicate work. Every so often, he tested to see if the tusk was loose. Finally, he pulled hard, and with a loud, painful crack, the tusk broke free from tons of flesh and bone.
Souleyman grabbed the tusk and shook it. The root slid to the ground like a squid. He stuffed the tusk cavity with straw to preserve the shape of the hollow base. Ndjongo began to chop the second tooth from the skull. This ivory was all the men had to show for four days of hard pursuit to protect the park, and it wasn't even theirs to keep. It would be locked away at headquarters in a depot filled with a growing pile of confiscated tusks. Ivory taken by poachers either follows a path from the bush to regional cities such as Khartoum and Douala, where it is sold as sculptures and jewelry, or finds its way to Asia through a network of black market traders.
Souleyman cut an ear off the elephant, laid it on a donkey's back as a pad, and strapped the tusks down tightly. The men saddled up, and we headed out by way of Bahr Beheda, a desiccated tributary of the Salamat River. To the south, we saw vultures soaring. By now, that second elephant had probably stumbled and fallen, but the men lacked the energy to search it out. It was midday in late May 2006, with the temperature hovering at 115°F (46ºC), and we still had four hours of hard going to reach base.
In the dry season, the landscape of Zakouma National Park in southeastern Chad holds a nomad's treasure—the first permanent water south of the Sahara, where the Korom, Tinga, and Beheda Rivers meet the Salamat. Somehow, despite a tumultuous history of slavery, colonialism, and civil war, humans have found a place in their hearts to make a refuge for wildlife here. Even today, as refugees stream into Chad from Sudan to escape the chaos in Darfur, 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the east, elephants live in Zakouma in relative peace. The natural world persists in abundance, while thousands of our own are dying.
But Zakouma is tiny, not even 1,200 square miles (3,100 square kilometers), and every year as the dry season relaxes its grip, some 3,500 elephants leave the park to find better forage. Danger awaits them. In a Texas-size region stretching from southern Sudan, southeastern Chad, and eastern Central African Republic down to the edge of the Congo forests, humans have been responsible for a precipitous decline of elephants, from perhaps 300,000 in the early 1970s to some 10,000 today.