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Zakouma National Park in southeastern Chad is home to one of the world's largest remaining concentrations of elephants. Despite a tumultuous history of slavery, colonialism, and civil war, conservationists have managed to create a wildlife refuge here.
Zakouma's armed guards have ensured sanctuary for the hundreds of species that reside within the nearly 1,200 square-mile park (3,100 square kilometers). Often at great personal risk, the guards fight a dangerous war against poachers who hunt the animals for their value on the black market or as cultural talismans. As the perennial rains arrive to replenish the desert landscape, some 3,500 elephants search for better forage outside the park's perimeter, where poachers await them.
Conservationist J. Michael Fay and National Geographic photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols traveled to Zakouma at the beginning of the wet season in 2006 to discover the danger that lies just beyond the park borders and threatens the refuge's very existence.
J. Mike Fay: Every single day as you're looking at this place, you just see this unbelievable little gem of abundance and diversity in nature in a landscape where nothing else like it is left.
Michael Nichols: I just start searching out places that I could put camera traps.
And I tried to think, "Now where is the animal going to go?"
This one baboon took 50 something pictures of himself. He would hear the click, but he could see his reflection too, so he was playing with himself.
Fay: When I flew to Zakouma with Nick, just about the first thing we see is elephants.
During the dry season about the only available water is right in Zakouma.
As the rains start in May, the elephants group up into these massive herds—700, 800, 1000 elephants, to go feed outside the park where there's much richer pasture.
Nichols: These elephants are protected by armed horsemen, only during the time that they're in the park. As soon as they leave the park, there are nomadic horsemen that want to kill them for their ivory.
I think of elephants on the same level as great apes, really intelligent. There's no conscience that could kill them for their teeth, for pool tables or piano keys.
"You guys are so cool man."
We thought that the ivory trade was down, but it's just been underground.
Everybody in Chad seems to have a Kalashnikov, and war is history there, so the elephants are tied into that so there's a lot of killing.
Fay: We ran into a poachers camp that shot at us, you know the guys there shot at us.
So along about May we see this large herd in the southwest of the park, over 800 elephants; they were just about at the border.
Luis, the guy who runs the park, called up the guards to go just look at these elephants to make sure they were ok.
Sure enough, couple days later, we hear that carcasses had been found just outside the national park.
It was verified that there were 20 carcasses. They had their tusks taken.
Nichols: And you just start to realize. Soon as they leave, they're just shot up. You know, you do investigations, and you realize they waited at a place they knew the elephants liked the food, and just shot 'em up.
If you can put yourself in their place, you'd think of all these babies we've seen frolicking at the water holes with their mother and all this love. And then the terror that they're going to go through. How many miles they run before they fall from the bullet holes, and you know, are they pursued on horseback? It's just a horrible thing.
Fay: We collared this one elephant who we named Annie, on the 23rd of May.
Nichols: She's given up information that's unbelievable.
She tells us that when she leaves the park, she heads straight for this certain area of good vegetation.
She also got out there, and realized these rains are fake rains. They came too early. So she went back to the park, and waited till the real rains had come.
She runs all night. But she gets within a kilometer (less than a mile) of the road, and she waits all day. Till nightfall, and then she crosses the road and she goes on up.
So she's telling us, "Hey I'm thinking about this whole thing, I know where I'm going, I know what trees I'm looking for to eat, I know where the roads are."
Fay: So over about a 3-month period, Annie traveled over a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers). That's an amazing statistic.
Nichols: But, her collar stopped. And we think, oh no. And she's been shot.
Fay: You've got all these rebels running around, and you've got Darfur, a lot of people will think, this place is hopeless. You know, what do we do?
I think that people recognize the importance.
If people really didn't want this park to be there, it wouldn't be there anymore. And it is.
Every rock we turned over we found some amazing thing.
When you look at the costs and benefits for everything that represents this biodiversity that is contained in Zakouma and in very few other places, staying put in Zakouma and protecting these elephants and working with local people and keeping the peace in this area is extremely important.
Video by J. Michael Fay, Conservationist, Wildlife Conservation Society; Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society
Photography by Michael "Nick" Nichols, National Geographic Photographer
Picture Editing by Kathy Moran, NGM Photo Editor
General Management by Lisa Hungness
Production Coordination/Interview by Amanda MacEvitt, Director of Content Development, NGM New Media
J. Michael Fay interview by Keene Haywood, Producer, NGM New Media
Video Editing by Angela Sanders, Project Coordinator, Research Conservation and Exploration Group
Image Coordination by Jenna Pirog, Photo Coordinator
Map Art by Oliver Uberti, Marguerite B. Hunsiker, James E. McClelland, Jr., and Mariel Furlong, NGM Maps
Special Thanks to Luis Arranz, Zakouma project administrator for the European Union and Nathan Williamson, photography assistant to Michael Nichols
Produced by Brian Storm and Pamela Chen / MediaStorm
Graphics Package by Tim Klimowicz / MediaStorm