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Updated Elephant Count Begins in Embattled African Sanctuary

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A recent elephant carcass that the team discovered from the air on calibration flights before the survey.

Photo by Mike Fay

J. Michael Fay, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic, is back in Chad, Africa, to survey the elephant population in Zakouma National Park. The park is on the frontline of Africa’s ivory wars, where conservation groups and the Chadian government are fighting daily to save some of the last surviving central African elephants.

Zakouma elephants could vanish within the next two to three years if poaching continues at current levels, according to recent population surveys, National Geographic News reported three months ago.

While on assignment for National Geographic magazine in August 2006, Fay made headlines when he revealed evidence of entire herds of elephants slaughtered by poachers armed with automatic weapons just outside Zakouma. The Texas-size park was a sanctuary for as many as 300,000 elephants in the 1970s. The most recent aerial surveys suggest fewer than 1,000 elephants remain.

Now Fay is back in the air over Zakouma to assess the situation.

 

Zakouma Survey 2009

By J. Michael Fay

Day 1: March 4, 2009

I woke up to the roaring of lions around 3:30 a.m. I could hear five different prides announcing their presence; the lion density here in Zakouma is high. It was already hot and I was coming down with a cold, not good conditions for the 30-some hours of flying we were to do to complete this survey over the next five days.

I peeled myself out of bed at 4:30. Only a few doves were cooing. Our plan was to get in the air at dawn every day of the survey, fly for 4 hours in the morning, until it got too unbearably hot and the animals were firmly hidden in the shade. Then we would try to fit in at least 2 hours in the PM to keep the time as short as possible.

The risk is that elephants will traverse from a non-surveyed to a surveyed area in the night and you miss them, or vise versa.

The team consisted of me, Darren Potgieter, Nicolas Taloua and Bechir Djimet. I was going to pilot since I hadn’t flown in a couple of years and wanted to have some fun. Darren, the guy who actually works here in Zakouma for WCS [Wildlife Conservation Society] piloting our plane, would be the front-seat observer, collecting waypoints and observations. Nicholas and Bechir work for the anti-poaching unit here and often fly with Darren. They were the back-seat observers.

 
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We don’t know what this year’s survey is going to show. What we do know is that Zakouma’s elephant herd, the last great central African savanna population, has been getting hammered by poachers since 2006. A sample survey in 2008 and overflights using a WCS aircraft over the past several months seem to confirm our worst fears. The elephant population has been cut from 3,885 in 2005 to under 1,000 individuals.

Elephants drink at the last remaining water hole during dry season in Zakouma.

NGS photo by Michael Nichols

This survey is to give us the first definitive proof of that grim fact or perhaps worse. More importantly, it is going to show us how intense poaching was this dry season.

Using funds from private donors, WCS and NGS were able to provide full-time aerial support for antipoaching efforts, starting in May 2008.

Since that time Darren had only found 18 poached carcasses in the park. If poaching intensity was like it had been to reduce the population from 3,885 to under 1,000 we should find many more fresh carcasses than that. So this year’s count sadly will be just as much about the dead elephants we find as live ones.

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We were in the air by 5:45 and headed for the west of the park. This is the more arid part of the park and not a place where we expected to find elephants in the dry season. We started at the north and flew transects east-west separated by 600 meters.

The vestiges of a dust storm that completely obscured visibility only a few days before was still in the air. My throat was dry, the sun shone a dull orange cast in slight haze.

Conservationist Mike Fay in Zakouma National Park

NGS photo by Michael Nichols

The north of the park is bordered by the Korum River. In 2006 there were a lot of cattle herders using wells here to stage incursions into the park. Darren said that those wells were filled in and it looked like that cattle problem was solved.

As we flew our transects data started to accumulate via shouts from the back seats: warthog 4 left, roan 2 right, oribi 2 left. As the array of parallel lines accumulated on our GPS display a story of the wildlife and human presence in this vast western part of the park emerged.

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Little Evidence of New Poaching

To the north we picked up a decent number of duikers, oribis and warthogs, and a few roan antelope.

As we progressed to the south, we found more and more roan, and giraffe, ostrich and grand koudou [greater kudu] near the rock outcrops in the south.

It seemed that wildlife numbers had increased in this arid part of the park since 2006. There was little evidence of any new elephant poaching from the wet season.

All in all conditions had improved here because the cattle problem was solved, the village in the southwest had not expanded their sorghum culture beyond previous limits, wildlife is increasing, and there is little sign of increased elephant poaching in this part of the park.

We didn’t expect to see elephants today, and we didn’t.

For maps, photos and data from the 2006 survey please go to National Geographic magazine’s Ivory Wars.

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A group of giraffes running across Zakouma a few years ago.

NGS Photo by Michael Nichols