‘Venez et visiter Parc National de Zakouma’ announces a billboard displaying a small herd of elephant as I step off the plane in N’Djamena, Chad.
The elephants are the poster boys of Zakouma and a rare conservation success story. Their numbers spiralled down from an estimated 4,000 in 2005 to around 450 in 2012. However, since the involvement of African Parks, a not-for-profit organisation working wonders in some of the less-visited parks of Africa, security has improved. So too community engagement and the decline in elephant numbers has been reversed.
Indeed, not a single elephant has been poached in the last three years and numbers are once again rising. This was the first of many extraordinary facts I was to discover in my short stay in Zakouma, in the south-eastern corner of Chad.
Many misconceptions exist in the western world about Chad. It is a blank on the map. There is a void of information about it. Fear fills the knowledge vacuum.
“I don’t understand arguments that say that Zakouma is unsafe,” says Darren Potgieter, African Park’ South African born Operations Manager in Zakouma.
“They have clearly not been here. The US sent out someone to look specifically at security and they said that all was good.”
As an afterthought, he adds, “I feel safer in Chad than I do in South Africa.”
There is emptiness below as we fly to Zakouma – Chad has a population of 12 million yet is five times the size of the UK. The landscape is bare. There is nothing apart from the wonderfully evocative French word, la brousse.
After almost three hours we begin our descent. The 3,000 square kilometres, a sixth of the size of the Kruger, of Zakouma lies beneath us. Its habitat is varied and in parts reminiscent of Kafue and Luangwa in Zambia and also Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. The park is largely flat riverine forest and grassland plains. Large pans, around which numbers of wildlife and birdlife congregate in the dry season, are dotted throughout the park. Lonely inselbergs rise up on the horizon. Giant footsteps pockmark the landscape.
In the wet season (May – September) everything is underwater. It is hard to imagine now as the grass is bleached dry of life and colour. The leaves are brown and desiccated. The red-orange of the Acacia Sahel stands out in bright contrast to the hushed tones of the bush around it.
In our short drive from the airstrip to camp we saw game. Not large numbers although the keystone species are doing well in Zakouma.
“Buffalo have increased from 1,000 to 10,000. These are Central African Savannah Buffalo which resemble a cross between Cape and Forest, being jet-black to orange and every shade in between,” explained Darren.
A giraffe stared back at us, its lips pursed in curiosity. Giraffes (Kordofan) are integral to this region and indeed are the emblem of the park, stemming back to rock art paintings on Ennedi, a fabulous area of desert in the northwest of the country. A healthy population of roan antelope means that herds of over 50 can be seen grazing alongside tiang. Other antelope include waterbuck, Lelwel’s hartebeest, red-fronted gazelle, oribi, bushbuck, and Buffon’s cob. The last rhino were in 1975 but there are plans to reintroduce rhino within a couple of months – this will make Zakouma the closest park to Europe that has the Big Five.
Later that evening, we head out on a night drive, one of the treats of Zakouma. The glint of crocodile eyes in torchlight along the Selamat River more disconcerting than how close we got to lion. We followed a young pride of two lionesses, one with three young about a year old and one with a single cub that could not have been more than two months old. The cub’s tender age did not prevent its older cousins from giving it a playful thump with their over-sized paws every now and again.
“There is a healthy population of lion here in Zakouma,” Darren informed us. “Approximately 130 in total. They are more closely related to the Asiatic lion and the males have little mane due to the heat.”
“Leopard?” I asked a little too eagerly.
“Yes,” he replied, “But not so many due to the size of the baboon population.”
Unfortunately we didn’t see a leopard but we did see a number of nocturnal predators including genet, pale fox, civet and serval. Serval has the face of a cat with oversized ears, a humped back and gorgeous lustrous coat of deep black spots and black stripes on the back of the neck. It was fishing, appropriately for catfish.
The next morning we head out to Riguek, a large wet pan. In March/April locusts arrive in their hundreds and thousands – an explosion of food and energy available that attracts a huge concentration of birds from kites to maribou storks. Although we are too early in the season for this phenomena, there is no shortage of birdlife.
The Abyssinian ground hornbill stalks the land like a prehistoric predator. The startling dazzle of the blue of an Abyssinian roller darts past. The steps of the maribou stork are measured as if holding his hands behind his back. A Senegal Coucal hides patiently in the shade. Ducks lift off as one in a squeak of sing-song chatter. Crowned crane take to the air, the beat of their wings ponderous and slow. They seem to be making little headway, frozen in the air and then their efforts pay off. The fluttering hover of the carmine bee-eater. High above, a Batleuer eagle floats scanning the grassy plan for snake and frogs. We are the first tourists ever to drive down here.
But best of all were the pelicans. They are skittish and difficult to get close to and inevitably in trying to do so one takes flight, triggering wave after wave after wave of pelican filing onto the runway like WWII bombers. Within minutes several hundred pelicans are airborne gliding the thermals, not a beat of their wings. The transformation is as dramatic as it is beautiful.
The elephants of Zakouma are an undoubted highlight especially as we got our first view of them from the air. Near the southern border of the park, we spot a solid grey mass. Making a wide turn, Darren flies low over the herd – a single matriarch is leading a huge herd of about 400 elephants. Other females flank her in a perfect pyramid, leading their families in single file.
“Wow. I have never seen so many elephants in one herd.”
“There used to be more. There have been elephants here for centuries and centuries,” the staccato bursts of Darren’s voice crackled in my headphones. “Even as late as the 1970s there were said to be 300,000 elephant in southern Chad, northern DRC, northern CA and Sudan. No more.”
“The elephants have been hunted for hundreds of years,” Darren continued. “Formerly on horseback with spears. Historically, the elephant’s defence mechanism was to retreat into a tight ball – this might have worked to some extent in the past but is suicide today. Horse is still the favoured mode de chasse. But nowadays enhanced by the use of automatic weapons. Poaching, either directly or indirectly, has thus decimated the elephant population.”
“What do you mean indirectly?”
“When panicked the elephants run. Sometimes for as much as twenty kilometres. It is difficult for the calves – they wouldn’t survive such trauma.”
The next morning we go to get a closer look at the elephants, from the ground. We arrive at the spot where the elephants were last according to the GPS reading – 11 of them are collared. It is some seven kilometres from where the herd was yesterday. We wait patiently calling in the light aircraft to better direct us to their whereabouts – although trampled the grass is high, remarkably so. It all looked very different from the air. It looked flat. On the ground it looks like an overgrown stubble field.
We hear trumpeting and then the deep resonant rumbling. We hear the far-off drone of a light aircraft and look expectantly to the skies.
“Down below my right wing. You will have to back up and then come around,” Rian’s voice crackles over the radio. Rian is the Park Director in Zakouma.
The dry grass crinkles and crackles under tyre as the Land Cruiser wades forward. The grass spills over the bonnet. We are submerged in a sea of straw. We push ever forward and spot the greyish shape of an elephant. Excitement.
But then Rian’s voice on the radio urges to ignore this animal in that the main bulk of the heed is further to our right. The dust rises as thorns scrape squeakily against the sides of the Land Cruiser. Two guinea fowl strut past us unaware of all the fuss.
We reach the herd, a wall of grey wheeling and tightening like a defensive military manoeuvre. We edge forward but they are not settled. There is a crack of timber. Like a grey train rushing past the herd moves on at a brisk pace. Dust fills the air, nostrils and eyes.
No one gets left behind, there are no stragglers. This is a cohesive group albeit founded on fear and flight – this herd of elephants does not charge, flight, after years of poaching, is their default response.
We wait patiently hoping that the elephants will become accustomed to our presence.
“I am so excited to see so many calves,” says Darren
“It means that the elephants are breeding. Poaching causes stress which affects fertility. There are at least fifteen youngsters who are under one year old. It is a clear indication that the elephant population is growing after years of decline. It is a symbol of Zakouma’s success.”
Trunks break cover, rising from the herd, sniffing the air. The herd pauses simultaneously. An impressive demonstration of their communication, coordination and discipline. They listen hard together. They relax. We edge inexorably forward. One young bull takes a dance step backwards and turns to face us. His ears widen and he raises his trunk in curiosity. He watches us. He then turns tail and moves on. This is the posturing of more normalised elephant behaviour.
How has African Parks managed to turn this around? Rian Labuschagne, Director of Zakouma since 2011 and known by all as Le Directeur, explains that one of the keys was studying the history of Zakouma, particularly where and when the elephants were most threatened.
“It became clear that during the wet season when the park was closed down, there was intensive poaching. The elephants moved in a very wide area to try and escape – moving up to 100 kilometres beyond the periphery, but it was here that poachers found it even easier to pick off the herds. The key was for African Parks to stay in the park and conduct operations throughout the year. It was not popular with the rangers but we had to do it.”
“The attitude and support of the villagers is also vital,” continues Rian. “We provide the communities with radios. If they see an unknown group to them or armed groups they radio in our help. We provide them with security. They keep us informed us what is happening on the ground.”
“When we (Rian and his wife Lorna) first came here, we said to ourselves five years and not one day longer but it now feels different. That is due to the people – they don’t have much with the exception of pride. In spite of how hard it is to survive, they do not grumble. In fact the opposite – they are very willing and eager to learn. It is a rewarding place to get things done.”
This enthusiasm is best personified in the rangers. They are divided into rapid response teams on the ground (there are always two response teams in the field, one within seven kilometres of the elephants at all times), motorbike teams collecting evidence and information and horse patrols. Horseback puts the rangers on a par with poachers and enables them to access all areas of the park, to cover greater distances and conduct patrols over a longer period.
Back in 2008 the rangers were demoralised and scared. The poachers were fearless and would not stand down. In 2012 six rangers were ambushed whilst performing their morning prayers and killed by Sudanese poachers. None have been killed since then with the introduction of French security training.
“What did you say to the rangers after the 2012 killings?”
“That is between me and them. All I will say is that together we cried and cried.”
Whatever was said by the French ex-military, the rangers are totally committed, even running in a marathon in Ennedi in February 2015 to raise money and awareness for African Parks. Rian jokes with the team that he will be there with them. They laugh. He retorts that he will be in the plane, watching them. They laugh again. To see who has died, Rian continues deadpan. They roar with laughter this time.
Whilst several rangers have had fathers or relatives killed they do not join to seek vengeance but because they care about the wildlife. One of many extraordinary facts of Zakouma.