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Ivory Wars
MARCH 2007
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Ivory Wars - Last Stand in Zakouma
By J. Michael Fay
Photographs by Michael Nichols
Poachers in Chad are gunning down some of Africa's last great elephant herds whenever they leave Zakouma National Park.

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 Béhéda, 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 Béhéda 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.


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