Last stand in zakouma gypk120794 17, 2011 27 Last Stand in Zakouma While poachers are slaughtering some of the last surviving central African elephants for their tusks, a refuge in Chad gives this endangered species armed protection—and a fighting chance. ByJ. Michael Fay Photograph by Michael Nichols (2008 Update: Zakouma elephants could vanish within the next tuvo to three years if poaching continues at current levels, according to recent population surveys. See more. ) The dead elephant, a huge bulli lay on his side, right leg curled as if in wrenching pain.
Dirt covered the exposed eye—magic done y 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 had seen hundreds of times in central Africa. As I passed my hand ov down my cheeks. lif bubbled and stream was checkered with as a manis torso. De PACE 1 or27 S»ipeto from rail, tears poured f bright red blood n the dust. His skin trunk was as thick through the soles of his feet; in those lines, I could trace every Step he had taken during his 30 years oflife.
This elephant’s ancestors had suwived centuries of raiding by the armies of Arab and African sultans from the north in search f slaves and ivory. He had lived through civil wars and droughts, only t SWipe page 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,» 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. Unofflcially, 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 AKA7 and M14 assault rifles. There was a second pair of horsemen, too. Adoum had fired at them before they disappeared. No 2 OF rifles. There was a second pair of horsemen, too. Adoum had fired at them befare they disappeared.
No doubt, there was another wounded elephant, fleeing in frantic terror. There is little lave lost between Our ragtag fighting force—a mx of sedentary tribesmen from local villages, some Arab, most Muslim nd 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, Nd]ongo sliced the rough gray armor of the inch-thick (three centimeters) hide covering the trunk, revealing a layer ofwhite gristle and dark uscle. As the knife worked deeper, two tubular nostrils, pure white and smooth as enamel, came into view; hours befare, 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 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. Ivony taken by poachers either follows a path from the bush o 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. y 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 1150F 460C), and we Still had four hours of hard going to reach base. In the dry season, the landscape of Zakouma Natlonal park in southeastern Chad holds a nomad’s treasure—the first permanent water south of the Sahara, where the Korom, Tinga, and Beheda 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 iles (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 00,000 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, recognized the park bythe 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 Iower, we saw elephants—hundreds— crowded under s OF standing under a large Terminalia tree. Circling Iower, we saw lephants—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 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 landin% I wanted to show Nick the largest of the water holes, Rigueik, that act as magnets to life in the dry season. Flying ast, we made a Iow 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 oftopi, 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 7 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 starte 6 OF 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. asked about the dead elephant Weld seen at Rigueik. He said it had been killed nd eaten by lions a few days before. March 24 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 iles (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 durlng the four to five months they’re outslde the park.
April 4 Our first task: an aerial survey of Zakouma. I would pilot the Cessna, and Pierre Poilecot, a French biologist who runs the parkis ecological monitoring progra Cessna, and Pierre Poilecot, a French biologist who runs the park’s ecological monitoring program, would be the front-seat bserver and data logger, with Étienne Ngakoutou and Nicolas Taloua in the rear. This was to be a repeat of a surveywe 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 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 1 75 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. April 8 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 doo for all species except the elephant. Pierre arrived at my ten at 4:37 a. . I opened the truck door and reached into the side pocket of my backpack to grab my headlamp. An insanely intense pan seared my right thumb. As I yanked my hand back, 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, let him continue —maybe the exorcism would work. 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 woul 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 he 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 1 989, 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, i’lfthere 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. April 9 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, l’d participate