(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.
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.
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.
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.
Do the resettled villagers support the park? Abakar paused. "They don't care about its importance as a reserve for wildlife. They regret not being able to exploit it." I asked him if the park's future seemed secure. He replied, "If there is money, the park will exist. The park has been good for wildlife." Indeed, as our surveys show, Zakouma has been nothing short of a miracle for wildlife. You can fly for hours in any direction outside the park and find no place else with such abundance.
With my hand functional again, we were back in action. The final elephant count was 127 herds, with a total of 3,020 animals, almost 900 short of last year. Luis was perplexed. Had we missed a large herd, or had we double-counted a herd in 2005? I had no reason to believe that the drop reflected an increase in poaching. In 1985, I'd participated in a survey, led by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, of the range of elephants in the northern part of the Central African Republic, that yielded a disastrous ratio of live elephants (4,308) to carcasses (7,861). Our dry season survey in Zakouma revealed not even one-tenth that level of poaching.
The days were scorching and clear. We moved camp to a big water hole on the Tinga, upstream of its junction with the Salamat, pitching our tents just below a low bridge built across four steel culverts. At the end of the dry season, this pool, jade green on a thick bed of sand, had the sweetest water in the entire park. A black kite, dipping its wings and inclining its tail ever so slightly, circled, eyes fixed on the queleas that were spilling onto the water's edge, drinking. A flock of guinea fowl came to the bank, clucking cautiously as they alternated between searching the ground for seeds and checking the sky for aerial predators. In the pool, the mouths of thousands of whiskered catfish dimpled the surface like water striders.
Then, it happened. Elephants appeared on the edge of the bank, juveniles first, followed by a large female. They stood still, listening. The female nudged one of the young males forward. He resisted at first, but thirst and a mother's insistence drove him down the bank. Other elephants followed, pouring down the steep incline, 30 to 40 of them, babies in tow, heads bobbing from side to side. At the water, they dropped their trunks into the coolness, taking deep drafts of the precious liquid before being pushed forward by the horde behind. As the craving for water subsided, the juveniles started to play, dunking each other; the adults retreated to chuck hot sand over their backs. It had been years since I had been treated to such a social display by elephants on the savannas of central Africa. The elephants then filed up the opposite bank to continue their relentless search for dry season forage. Four minutes later, they vanished. The only movement came from a lone sandpiper scurrying along the bank and the red-throated bee-eaters nabbing insects above the constant churn of fish.
Luis received a report of a column of 80 Chadian military vehicles moving south toward Am Timan, 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of the park. They had been sent to intercept rebels moving north toward the capital, N'Djamena. Marc Wall, the United States Ambassador to Chad, happened to be visiting the park, so I asked him about the rebels. He said they were targeting the regime of President Idriss Déby and were rumored to be financed by the Sudanese government. The region around Zakouma has always been in the cross fire of opposing interests—be it the U.S. versus Muammar Qaddafi, the Axis powers versus the Allies, or the sultans from Ouaddaï or Darfur versus the tribes of the south.
After dark, I joined Nick on the bridge. As we talked, four figures with AK-47s emerged from the blackness. They threw their guns to their shoulders and spoke to us in Arabic. To our relief, they were Chadian army regulars. They said their vehicle had broken down and they were seriously thirsty, so we took them to the tourist camp for water. There, an agitated Pierre told us that poachers had poisoned a roadside pool near the Machtour water hole. Nine civets, a lioness, two hyenas, five raptors, and hundreds of doves had died from drinking the water. Nathalie Vanherle, a lion researcher working in Zakouma, was also worried. The lioness she was monitoring had not come to feed her cubs that evening, and her den was close to the contaminated water hole.
We returned to the bridge, somewhat nervously because of the rebel activity, but the elephants had not been informed. They showed up around 8:15. In the moonlight, I could see the little guys getting shoved forward, while the adults lined the banks, frantic for a drink.
Nathalie came on the radio this morning. She had spotted a baby elephant killed by lions near the den on the Machtour. We found the carcass later that afternoon; it was a three-year-old female, still tuskless, whose mother may have been killed by poachers. The lower part of one of her back legs and her neck had been eaten, and a plate of skin was missing from her belly. A lion known to Nathalie as M03-03 was stretched out under the shade of a small kharoub tree, napping. He raised his head from his siesta, ambled over to the carcass, licked the belly, and approached the neck. He had a broken lower canine; you could see the exposed root. Slowly but surely, he cut into the flesh, yanking, grinding, licking, pushing ever deeper into the throat, finally pulling off a chunk of trachea and chewing contentedly with his back molars. After an hour, M03-03 headed off to find water.
Nathalie said that lions in the park commonly prey on young elephants. In the early 1980s, when elephant poaching by Arab horsemen from Darfur was out of control in the Central African Republic, I had seen many elephants orphaned by poaching become the preferred prey of lions in Manovo–Gounda–Saint Floris National Park. I wondered if this was now happening in Zakouma.
We followed M03-03, hoping he wasn't heading for the poisoned water hole, until we reached a lone ngato tree, the grass tamped down below a halo of low-hanging branches. "This is where the cubs are," Nathalie said. Hearing our voices, the two cubs, whose mother we never found, emitted high-pitched growls and squeals. They wrestled and tumbled, not knowing that without the protection of their mother, they must now be counted as members of the living dead.
News from the capital: hundreds of rebel soldiers killed or captured, and the rest of the column routed. We were on our way south to check on a breeding colony of bee-eaters when I saw a large helicopter to the southeast. It made straight for our truck. We could run, but we couldn't hide. It was a Russian-made Mi-17 with a missile launcher, the same type that had mistakenly fired the day before on a column of Chadian and American soldiers north of the park. The helicopter passed over us, continued to the Tinga River, and circled the trucks Luis had hidden to prevent them from becoming rebel spoils.
We heard that the Mi-17 had fired nine missiles on a rebel column passing through the park about three miles (five kilometers) from where the chopper had taken a bead on us.
A pair of French military Mirage fighter jets running sorties toward Sudan (more than a thousand rebels were retreating there) buzzed the Tinga, spooking a herd of elephants I was watching at the pool. We went south again to check on an elephant we thought might have been wounded by poachers; she was limping hard, likely having taken a bullet in the leg. That evening, a low moon cast the ghostly reflection of a hundred elephants on the water at the Tinga pool. Zakouma was in the grip of the driest part of the year. This water hole was now elephant mecca.
We found a fresh elephant carcass in the bed of the Salamat, which now held the only potable water in the park. Hundreds of pelicans lined up in rows, dipping their beak pouches into the water, pushing masses of fish to one end like a seine net. When the fish tried to escape, the pelicans quickly filled their gullets. Vultures appeared beyond the bank, hissing and pecking, claiming places at the dinner table with their serpentine necks. As whooshing wings departed, we got a clear view of the carcass. It was a bull. The elephant's face had been chopped off, his tusks gone. We camped with this fellow for three days, mourning him.
In the afternoon, we went upstream, where an elephant thoroughfare arrives from Rigueik. We saw elephants approaching the river downwind. We looped around. More elephants. We looped again. Yet more elephants—at least 500. Moms were leading their families up the river, the kids goofing around, whipping their trunks from side to side and splashing each other as they ran. In the excitement, a fish eagle dropped a flopping tilapia at my feet. A vervet monkey cackled from a branch over the high bank.
For an hour, I watched, marveling that these elephants, who spend their lives being hunted and killed by men, can find peace. How do they endure the terror and despair? I have had a close bond with elephants since 1985, when I was doing research in the Dzanga clearing in the Central African Republic. I learned to speak their language—not literally, of course, but I feel as if I understand them. I know their habits, their personalities, their moods. I have laughed with elephants, and I have played their jousting game. Once, I almost died from tusk wounds inflicted by a frightened female on a beach in Gabon. After that, my African bush friends said, "Your blood is now part elephant blood."
I also thought about the humans living in this area, their lives ravaged over centuries by the slave trade. In Zakouma, the Goula people built their villages near the rocky crags in the west of the park, in an attempt to escape mounted Arab and Ouaddian raiders, who savaged, captured, and sold them as slaves, decimating their numbers. I have seen contemporary savagery on the same scale in civil war in central Africa, where friends of mine were hunted, raped, starved, and killed. Yet their kids still played; their women still laughed.
It is a sad fact that the vast majority of elephants in southeastern Chad don't die of old age. They die at the hand of man. Yet when I meet the Zakouma elephants, all I see is joy. No rage or thirst for revenge—just a desire to protect their young.
I flew Luis to Am Timan so he could debrief Ahmat Hassan Djimet, governor of the Salamat region, about the passage of the rebels through Zakouma. Luis and the governor collaborate to preserve the park and maintain law and order in the region. Ahmat congratulated Luis for handling the rebel incursion so well—calming fears in the villages and communicating effectively with the military and with him. He was unhappy to hear that some of the park's weapons and radios had been stolen, but Luis suggested that this was a small price to pay for no animal or human casualties. The governor said he would speak to President Déby about getting more arms and ammunition for Zakouma.
We tagged along with Luis on a public relations pilgrimage to see Aboul Habib, the grand marabout of the Ouled Rachid Arabs—nomads who, in the dry season, base themselves with their cattle at Andouma, a vital water hole just north of the park. Luis wanted a face-to-face discussion with the man who had great influence over those who felt inclined to graze their livestock and hunt elephants, giraffes, and buffalo in the national park. The scene evoked medieval Arabia: hundreds of grass huts, organized by clan, occupied an expanse of short, green grass. A cloud of smoke hung over the clearing. Boys chased herds of goats; women collected water in clay pots in the shallows. Dogs barked. We passed a group of men with camels who looked as if they might have come from ancient Jerusalem. The grand marabout's grass palace was filled with men in robes thumbing prayer beads. They were tall, black, with fine features, and they greeted us with long salutations in Arabic.
Luis sat in front of Aboul Habib, crowded by 30 clan members. The grand marabout wasted no time. He said that he knew that the plan was for Andouma to be annexed and incorporated into the park. Looking Luis in the eye with a paternal stare, he said, "If this happens, there will be death among men." Luis assured him repeatedly that Andouma would never be incorporated into Zakouma. But Aboul Habib had the example of history as evidence that Europeans do not always tell the truth. For the first 25 years of his life, Chad had been a French colony, won through warfare, assassinations, land grabs, and lies. Before the colonial era, his people had used the entire region as a dry season watering ground. Who could blame him for denying us his friendship and his tea? Having satisfied—albeit uncomfortably—our objective to maintain contact and peace with the Ouled Rachid, we joined Aboul Habib in prayer, then left.
Back at the Salamat, the sky was a curtain of gray. Later that night, I was awakened by a thunderclap, followed by a rush of wind. Lightning creased the sky. As I emerged from my tent, a drop of water landed on my bare chest. More drops and swirling wind. The elephants responded with trumpeting. Large drops dimpled the pond's surface. Then rain, real rain, poured down. A life-giving torrent flowed on the land, erasing the months of drought.
Oven-like heat yielded to temperate coolness. Gusts blew in from the south. Yesterday, there had been thousands of marabou storks and pelicans along the Salamat. Now, there was none. The antelope and buffalo and warthogs and herons—and seemingly all other animal life—had vanished. The rain had robbed the Salamat of its role as the sole source of sustenance.
I took off south for a solo flight to look for elephants along the lower Salamat. None. I turned west, following a vein of newly watered lands, with fresh green grass as far as I could see. Near the western border of the park, I spotted a solid gray mass. Making a wide turn, I saw a single matriarch leading an immense herd of 800 elephants southward. Other females flanked her in a perfect pyramid, leading their families single file. Why such an assembly? Maybe because there is safety in numbers, or because elephants love to socialize. Or perhaps it has to do with history. Elephant families are matriarchal. Grandmothers, mothers, and daughters with their children form the family unit. Males are pushed out before puberty. In their annual forays out of the park, the old matriarchs have survived decades of contact with humans. Surely then, these females, possessed of deep wisdom, are best able to navigate the other elephants through safe corridors to food sources outside Zakouma National Park.
Nick, aloft in the park's ultralight with Luis, spotted the big herd outside the southern border. Luis immediately dispatched the guards from Ibir and Kiéké, Zakouma's southern outposts, to look for poachers. The fliers also saw another elephant carcass in the Tinga wash, and I went there on foot to take a look. It was a female. Blood had drained from her temple into a pool fringed by maggots. I guessed she had been shot, then had bolted and died of her wounds. Even if her killer had succeeded in taking her tusks, the ivory would, at most, have paid for a few sacks of millet and a bit of sugar and tea. All the poachers I have ever seen, even those who have killed hundreds of elephants, are still poor, often—by the looks in their eyes—at the expense of their souls.
The elephant collaring team—Dolmia, Bertrand Chardonnet, and Henrik Rasmussen—arrived in Tinga. Our plan was to collar two females at the north end of the park to track their annual migration. We assumed that because many nomads were also moving through this area as the wet season set in, the northern elephants would be the most vulnerable to poaching.
We were in the air by 5 a.m. to provide aerial support for the collaring operation. About 700 elephants, in three subgroups, were concentrated in the northeast corner of the park. Bertrand, Henrik, Dolmia, and a group of guards went in on foot. We would keep in touch by radio, steering them to the elephants from our bird's-eye vantage. I directed them to one subgroup. Those elephants, Henrik reported, were all males. I guided them to a second group with females. Minutes later, a big female was on her knees, flapping her ears, a phosphorescent dart in her rump. She had a baby by her side. Henrik pushed the baby away as it charged, defending its mother. Soon, Henrik radioed: Collar 6043 was on. We named the elephant Annie. Rocking back and forth, Annie eventually hoisted herself upon all fours and stood still, composing herself. There was no sign of the baby. Then she began walking south. Meanwhile, the rest of the elephants had fled in two massive herds, dust billowing in their wake. During the next hour, Annie found her way directly to the first herd, then made a beeline for the second. Her baby still hadn't joined her.
That evening, we flew to Zakouma's southern boundary to see three elephant carcasses reported by the monitoring crew. Circling over the black stains of rotting bodies, we counted not three, but sixteen elephants. All their tusks were gone, chopped from their faces. We surmised that the southern herd had been attacked just after leaving the park.
In the morning, we resumed collaring in the northeast. Bertrand reported that the team had darted a small female, and we quickly located her from the air. She was down, ears flapping. Another, larger female stood guard at her side. I guided the team in. Soon, the collar was on, and the antidote to the tranquilizer administered. The elephant struggled to get up, then collapsed. Bertrand gave her a second dose of antidote. Minutes passed. Again and again, she raised herself up on her front legs, only to collapse with each attempt. Afraid to look, I flew off. Fifteen minutes later, she was still trying desperately to get up. Bertrand thought others in the herd might have trampled her as they fled, or that her female guardian had sat on her in an effort to get her moving. An hour later, no change. Pounding the dashboard, I knew I was to blame for her suffering—I had instigated this exercise. I flew back to headquarters to assist the team's effort to get water to the scene. On the ground with the elephant, we worked frantically, bucketing 250 gallons (950 liters) of cool water over her back, willing her to recover. It was futile. As the hours wore on, she became more and more exhausted, until she could scarcely hold up her head. We decided to anesthetize her again, remove the collar, and let her rest. Using ropes attached to the truck, we gently flipped her from right side to left. That's when we saw her broken pelvis. Any remaining hope evaporated. The order was given. As I walked away, devastated, a gunshot rang through the trees. Having come here as protectors, we, too, were now messengers of death.
I saw Souleyman later. On foot, he and a team of guards had surveyed the massacre site south of the park. He counted 20 carcasses in all, including a fetus, so we had missed a few in our aerial estimate. All the tusks had been removed, and the meat butchered by villagers. Shell casings revealed that the weapons had been AK-47 and M14 automatic rifles. From the position of the shells, there must have been at least three shooters. Souleyman blames the intensified poaching on the chaos in Darfur and the Central African Republic. "You can buy guns and ammunition in those places as easily as a camel," he said. Considering that a force of 88 armed guards is needed to keep the elephants inside Zakouma alive, these mass killings prove the potential for carnage outside the park, where the only protection comes from the elephants' own evasive abilities and the will of God.
Annie's collar had been on for ten days. I pulled out my computer, hooked up the satellite phone, and downloaded her latest location. What was going on? She had traveled more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the park in just a couple of days. We took off to find her and, after flying over villages and millet fields for 25 minutes, reached a dense, viny thicket occupied by more than a hundred elephants. I couldn't believe they had gone so far so fast. We circled, and there, among one small group, was our collared lady, eating away happily, her baby at her side.
I had to leave Zakouma for the United States, but I worried that our work wasn't finished. A wet season survey was needed to assess the elephant situation outside the park.
Invited by the Chadian government, I returned and teamed up with some of the Zakouma guards to search systematically for elephants and signs of poaching. First we surveyed inside the park again and, aside from the carcasses of three males, found no serious poaching activity. Then we flew a grid of transects outside the park to the north and south in areas Dolmia had identified as the wet season range. Over the days, we came upon evidence of rampant poaching: five sites where a hundred elephants had been massacred since May, their trunks and tusks hacked off. I saw poachers fleeing, and one man fired on the plane. Seeing the inert, dismembered bodies of elephants is every bit as disturbing to me as seeing the bodies of humans killed in war.
We now also have confirmation that as the rains progress and the plains outside the park turn green, elephants cross the boundary of protection in massive herds led by a single matriarch. Using her prodigious knowledge of the vegetation and landscape outside Zakouma—every trail, every creek crossing, every village and road—this wise old elephant uses routes that, for the most part, avoid all hazards. In daylight, when approaching a road that must be crossed, she will stop miles before reaching it. As soon as darkness comes, she starts the herd moving again, hurrying her dependents to safety.
The signal from Annie showed her streaking south for three hours. Then I received 14 readings from the same point. After that, silence—no more signals.
Back in Zakouma and desperate to find Annie, I flew with guards from Am Timan to the point of her last transmission. At an acacia thicket, I passed just east of the point. There she lay—or rather, there lay the bones and fragments of her skin. With her were eight other elephants, all dead. As of this writing, Nicolas, Souleyman, and the other guards are collaborating with the Chadian military and gendarmes, scouting the territory outside the park in unrelenting pursuit of the poachers. Four elephant killers have been apprehended and jailed, including the man who fired on my plane.
What comes next for Zakouma? The situation in southeastern Chad is eerily reminiscent of the Central African Republic during the 1980s. We were in an all-out war against hundreds of armed men from Sudan, rampaging on horses and camels—the kind of men now known as janjaweed. Despite our efforts, we watched the black rhino driven to extinction over a large area and elephants reduced to 5 percent of their original populations.
There is a direct connection between depletion of natural resources, including wildlife, and human conflict. The sanctuary of Zakouma is not only a critical last stand for elephants in central Africa but also a force for peace and stability in the region. But if poaching outside Zakouma by villagers living on its periphery, or by nomadic herders, is to be stopped, management must be extended throughout the entire range of the elephants. A wider peace for elephants—and humans.
Note to Readers (March 2007)
Because its staff has stood firm in the face of adversity, Zakouma remains the best protected park in central Africa. But the fight to save Zakouma's elephants is urgent. The Chadian authorities have pledged to safeguard the herds when they leave the park during the wet season. Information networks must be strengthened, and collaboration with Chad's military reinforced. In addition, an airplane is needed for daily surveillance.