Our first task: an aerial survey of Zakouma. I would pilot the Cessna, and Pierre Poilecot, a French biologist who runs the park's ecological monitoring program, would be the front-seat observer and data logger, with Étienne Ngakoutou and Nicolas Taloua in the rear. This was to be a repeat of a survey we did the previous dry season, when we counted 3,885 elephants. Pierre's truck rumbled into camp at 3:30 a.m., sending millions of roosting queleas, finch-like birds, into a diluvian frenzy of flapping wings and chirping. A baboon reacted from his elevated night perch—hoon, hoon, hoooon. At daybreak, we were flying 300 feet (90 meters) above the vast confluence of floodplains that define Zakouma, back and forth on transect lines like a crop duster, counting animals.
On the first pass, we were in the thick of it. Nicolas called out, "elephant, 8, left," and Étienne, "roan antelope, 1, right." It continued like that: giraffe 3, giraffe 1, hartebeest 5, elephant 4, giraffe 4, giraffe 14, buffalo 3, buffalo 1, buffalo 65, elephant—a herd. I looked down: Five groups were loosely assembled on the savanna. We counted 175 elephants in all. By the time we landed, four hours later, we had tallied 4,205 animals: 2,063 buffalo, 952 elephants, 551 hartebeests, 301 topi, 194 giraffes, 74 waterbuck, 45 ostriches, and 25 roan antelope. Not a bad accounting for the first morning.
By our last survey day, the numbers were looking good for all species except the elephant. Pierre arrived at my tent at 4:37 a.m. I opened the truck door and reached into the side pocket of my backpack to grab my headlamp. An insanely intense pain seared my right thumb. As I yanked my hand back, I felt a large, hard arthropod of some sort. Pierre blurted out, "Scorpion!" By the time we got to the plane, my arm was throbbing and covered in a cold sweat. I tried pulling on the controls, but it was useless. Mahamat, the night watchman, came to the rescue. He examined the sting, then started to rub it hard with a scrap of wood given to him by a Sudanese witch doctor. With each rub, a funny-bone sensation shot up my arm. Howling, I let him continue—maybe the exorcism would work. I spent the next four hours in a fetal position in my sleeping bag repeating the mantra: "You will look in your sack before you put your hand into it in the dark. You will look. …"
Later that afternoon, I mustered the will for an overdue chat with Abakar Abdel Ali, the park's longest serving guard and the son of the chief of the former village of Zakouma, one of several Arab settlements whose people once fished and grew sorghum along the Salamat River. Abakar had been a young man in 1958 when his father agreed to a proposal by a French civil servant to turn the area around the village into a reserve where hunting was banned. Five years later, Abakar witnessed the creation of Zakouma National Park. The forecast was full of promise: Wildlife would flourish, tourists would come. But first Zakouma and seven other villages had to be razed and their occupants, who received compensation and the promise of employment, moved outside the refuge. Abakar started working for Zakouma in 1969 and, the next year, became a guard. At that time, buffalo were almost extinct in the park, and there were about a thousand elephants. There are now 6,500 buffalo, and elephant numbers have steadily increased since the ban on international ivory trade in 1989, reaching 3,885 in 2005.