Zakouma National Park is not on everyone’s radar but it should be. The fact that you have got this far is a good sign. If you are well-travelled and have been on safari in Africa already and looking for something different then Zakouma is for you.
Why do we say that? Firstly and foremost for the privileged insight that you gain to frontline conservation - the African Parks team are quite simply phenomenal. I challenge you to find better in Africa. Secondly for its elephants. Thirdly for its night drives and fourthly for the nomadic communities living on/near the borders of the park.
Zakouma is 3,000 square kilometres, a sixth of the size of the Kruger. 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.
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, security had improved, so too community
engagement and the decline in elephant numbers has been reversed. Not a single elephant has been poached in the last three years and numbers are once again rising. Extraordinarily these elephants all live in one single super-herd.
Night drives in Zakouma are a real treat. The chance of seeing nocturnal predators is always a thrill but the fact there is an abundance of Africa's smaller predators, you are very likely to see serval, pale fox and civet. Also the glint of crocodile eyes in torchlight along the Selamat River is quite a sight.
During the dry season nomadic herders settle around the park. Visiting these communities reminds you of the hospitality and generosity of such peoples. It also gives you the opportunity to visit the local markets - there is a bustling trade between the nomads and local villagers. In particular the village of Kach Kacha where every Saturday there is a large market. On one hand there is a market for livestock, largely male dominated, and the other small rickety stall selling a variety of goods from salt to nuts, from leather to brass bells, from to mobile phone chargers. Photography is not generally well received in the market.
The seasons of the park
Zakouma endures extremes. Heavy rains from June until October floods the park creating a wetland area not dissimilar to the Okavango. From November until May, no rain falls and the water recedes – the only reminder of rain being the watermark a metre and a half up on trees. As the rivers and pans recede, the wildlife and birdlife congregates in vast numbers offering awe-inspiring sightings.
The keystone species are doing well. Of course the highlight of any trip is seeing the main herd of elephant, often over 400 in number. 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. There is a healthy population of lion, approximately 130 in total, leopard (although there numbers are not huge due to the size of the baboon population) and soon-to-be-reintroduced rhino.
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.
On night drives you are likely to see serval, genet, white-tailed mongooses, wild cat, pale foxes and side-striped jackals.
Arguably even more spectacular than the richness and variety of Zakouma's mammal mega-fauna is its birdlife – definitely a highlight of Zakouma. Sandwiched between desert and rainforest, Zakouma National Park is the first suitable habitat after the Sahara and thus vast numbers of water birds and wildfowl crowd Zakouma's pans - flocks of well over 500 are common and crowned crane are often seen in numbers of over 2,000.
Around the pans, such as Riguek, 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. 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 take to the air 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.
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 kaleidoscope of birds includes the Egyptian Plover and the Black-capped Gonolek.