Even after years in Africa, Lorna Labuschagne never tires of the excitement of seeing the continent’s wild animals. But a plane trip over Chad’s Zakouma National Park in late 2013 was a particularly remarkable moment for her and several colleagues who were working to save elephants in the Central African wilderness. Below, they spied at least 21 new elephant calves.
“The babies were in a marsh, wet and enjoying the water and not hiding under their mothers,” says Labuschagne, marketing and tourism officer with African Parks, the South Africa-based conservation group that manages Zakouma. “We had been seeing new calves for a few months … but never more than seven at once. As you can imagine we were ecstatic.”
The dire situation facing Africa’s elephants has become headline news. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists last month warned that poaching had caused elephant populations to reach a tipping point on the continent where more animals are being killed than are being born.
In Central Africa, the number of elephants has declined by 60 percent in just a decade. Zakouma, however, is bucking that trend. There has not been a single case of poaching inside the 19,000-square-mile park for nearly three years.
That’s very different from the situation at the end of the last decade, when a wave of killings hit the park, near the border with Central African Republic. The number of elephants that inhabit the park for most of the year fell from about 4,000 in 2006 to just 450 by 2011.
Poaching in Zakouma surged during the mid-2000s as rebellions and civil war overtook Chad and the Darfur region in neighboring Sudan. From 2006 to 2009, armed groups on horseback — many of them Sudanese suspected of being linked to Darfur rebel groups — moved through the park, killing elephants with impunity. As Chad’s government struggled to retain power, elephant conservation was low on its priority list.
At the same time, Chinese investment was starting to flow to Chad as well as many other African nations. Demand for ivory grew; on several occasions, businessmen involved in the Chinese oil industry were reportedly arrested at Chad’s N’Djamena International Airport with ivory in their luggage.
In early 2009, just a few weeks after poachers slaughtered more than 60 animals in a single incident, Zakouma’s workers were despondent. Darren Potgieter, a South African pilot who carried out aerial surveillance flights, had found a sole calf cowering under a tree, surrounded with the bloodied carcasses of its family. At the time, it was just the latest in a list of shocking incidents in which poachers had used horses and guns to scare the animals into a tight group and then killed all of them, regardless of whether they had tusks.
And it wasn’t just the elephants that suffered: In September 2012, five Chadian game guards employed by African Parks at Hebane patrol post, an area outside the park where the animals spend the dry season, were brutally murdered in what is believed to have been a reprisal by poachers.
Chad is one of a very small number of countries in Central Africa which has shown a serious interest in conserving its elephant populations.
World Wildlife Fund
Just a few years ago, Zakouma’s elephant population seemed to be teetering on the brink of extinction. So what’s behind this remarkable change in fortune?
In late 2010, the Chadian government invited African Parks to take over management of Zakouma after the European Union, which had been the park’s primary donor, threatened to withdraw financing as the poaching seemed to spiral out of control. The new managers — who also run six other parks in Africa (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Zambia) — overhauled the park’s anti-poaching system.
Previous efforts at patrolling had been patchwork due to poor communication and the difficulty of traversing the park in the wet season. Some guards and other staff were suspected of taking bribes and helping the poachers. To address the issues, African Parks recruited a new “rapid-response” foot patrol team and provided them equipment such as radios. U.S. Marines helped to train new patrols.
“We made patrols more mobile and widespread, with a radio control room and extensive VHF [very high frequency] digital radio communication put in place,” says Labuschagne. “All patrols are given instructions daily as to where to patrol by the control room, based on things like elephant collar data and community intelligence.”
African Parks also oversaw the creation of 10 new airstrips around Zakouma and weatherproofed the airstrip at the park headquarters (Tinga camp), so for the first time the patrolling project was able to utilize aerial support throughout Chad’s rainy season, from June to October. “Aircraft are a key component in surveillance, and we currently have two in the park,” says Labuschagne. “This way, we know where the elephants are and we can better protect them.”
Government buy-in also appears to have been key. Despite his government’s wholesale failure to control poaching during the worst of the rebel crisis, Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno now seems to be committed to doing so. This February, he attended a summit on the illegal wildlife trade in London and was one of four African leaders to sign an agreement called the Elephant Protection Initiative and commit to a moratorium on the ivory trade for at least 10 years. Chad also employs hundreds of new wildlife rangers to look after some of the country’s other vulnerable flora and fauna.
In February, a 1.1-ton stockpile of ivory was burned, a gesture meant to show poachers that the government will not tolerate any sale of ivory, even from old stock.
“Chad is one of a very small number of countries in Central Africa which has shown a serious interest in conserving its elephant populations,” says Lamine Sebogo, African elephant program coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund.
Elephants are key species for the survival of whole ecosystems that we barely even understand.
But Zakouma is only part of the story. Its surface area is just a tiny part of the normal migratory range of Central African elephants, which roam from Sudan in the east and Central African Republic in the south to Cameroon in the west. Elephants that don’t spend most of the year in Zakouma National Park have fared worse.
In the 1950s, as many as 150,000 elephants are believed to have lived in that region, but today the number could be as low as 8,000. In March 2013, 86 adult elephants and a number of calves were killed near Fianga, a town in southwest Chad, near the Cameroon border. Roughly 600 animals had been slaughtered the previous year in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park.
One of the main Chadian “masterminds” of poaching, Hassan Idriss, also known as Gargaf, is believed to be behind bars (after three successful escapes from custody), and Chad has set up a national control room at N’Djamena airport to manage information on suspected poachers’ activities sent in by the public and from radio collar data about the elephants’ whereabouts.
But this is a regional problem. Anti-poaching efforts across this swath of sub-Saharan Africa are stymied by weak governments in neighboring countries, such as Central African Republic, where state authority has almost collapsed.
Lamine Sebogo estimates that poaching is responsible for 80 percent of elephant deaths in Central Africa. The outlook, he says, is bleak. Still, Sebogo believes that other countries can learn from Chad’s experience.
“Elephants are key species for the survival of whole ecosystems that we barely even understand,” he says. “If we lose them, we can’t even begin to understand how far it will reach.”