March 23, 2006
It had been a year since my last visit to Zakouma, but, flying in my Cessna over the Chadian landscape with photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols, I recognized the park by the meanders of dry riverbeds dotted with occasional pools. We descended into the heat of the brown floodplain of the Salamat River. At a thousand feet (300 meters), I spied an elephant standing under a large Terminalia tree. Circling lower, we saw elephants—hundreds—crowded under the shade of just about every tree in view, motionless save for the gentle flapping of ears to cool their bodies. Zakouma is the last place on Earth where you can see more than a thousand elephants on the move in a single, compact herd.
Nick spotted the Zakouma base camp. Radio antennas, satellite dishes, and a fleet of trucks and heavy equipment attested to a well-greased infrastructure—a secure island in a sea of human entropy.
Before landing, I wanted to show Nick the largest of the water holes, Rigueik, that act as magnets to life in the dry season. Flying east, we made a low pass over the pool as thousands of cranes, pelicans, spur-winged geese, and storks unfolded their black-and-white wings and took flight. A herd of buffalo—there must have been more than 600—fled south in a golden cloud of dust. Hundreds of topi, hartebeests, waterbuck, kob, reedbuck, and giraffes raced in a wave below. In the clearing, we also saw the half-eaten carcass of a juvenile elephant.
We touched down at base camp and were warmly greeted by a throng of kids and Luis Arranz, a Spanish employee of the European Union who has worked here for six years. (For the past 17 years, the EU has donated nearly a million dollars a year to the Zakouma conservation project.) Tiny circles pocked the dusty ground—there had been a "mango rain," a light shower, in the night. We immediately started talking about the elephants, wondering if these first raindrops had got them moving. Luis assured me that the full-blown rainy season wouldn't come until June and that the elephants hadn't yet congregated. I asked about the dead elephant we'd seen at Rigueik. He said it had been killed and eaten by lions a few days before.
After setting up camp south of headquarters, at Tinga, a refurbished tourist camp, we sat down with Luis and his team to discuss plans. We were here to observe the elephants during the seasonal metamorphosis from barren desert to verdant pasture. Back in 2000, Malachie Dolmia, a friend now working for Chad's Ministry of Water and Environment, had put satellite tracking collars on several Zakouma elephants while doing his Ph.D. He discovered that when the wet season begins, elephants leave the park apparently in two subpopulations, one ranging about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north, the other traveling about the same distance southwest. We wanted to find out what triggers the gathering of these big groups, whether they leave Zakouma at the same time, and, most important, how vulnerable the elephants are to poaching during the four to five months they're outside the park.