Photo courtesy Mike Fay
A haven for hundreds of thousands of elephants only a few decades ago, Zakouma National Park in Chad in northern central Africa is now on the frontline of the continent’s ivory wars. Poaching in recent years may have reduced the number of elephants in the reserve to fewer than a thousand.
Elephants could vanish from the park within the next two to three years if poaching continues at current levels, National Geographic News reported three months ago.
Conservationist J. Michael Fay, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic, is in Zakouma this week to survey the park from the air. He and others are hoping to get an accurate picture of the status of the park’s surviving elephants.
Fay (in the photo above, on the right) made headlines in 2006 — the last year the park’s elephants were counted officially — when he found evidence of entire herds of elephants slaughtered by poachers armed with automatic weapons just outside Zakouma’s boundaries.
Zakouma Survey 2009
By J. Michael Fay
Day 3: March 6, 2009
My cold feels like it is transitioning to something more closely related to bronchitis. As soon as I put my head down to sleep I start a whooping cough. Glad I am just flying the plane and not counting or writing down data.
We were off the ground on schedule, windows washed, observers in place.
We began block 3 on the southeastern end of the park. The Gara Plain forms the eastern limit of the park. Normally there are thousands of cattle and nomads here, but they were invited to leave some weeks ago because of the frequency of incursions into the park. So we decided to push the transects out into the plain a bit because Darren has been seeing topi and ostrich out there.
NGS photo of Gara Plain after the rains by Michael Nichols
We flew over Kieke Village where there is a guard outpost on the southeast side of the park. There were sorghum fields right up to the border with the park. Almost immediately we spotted a herd of 18 giraffe. There was a time when giraffe tails fetched a high price here. They were given to brides as part of the dowry, but that practice has started to wane and the number of giraffe in Zakouma is definitely going up.
Counts of hartebeest, giraffe, water buck and warthogs started to mount.
We came close to the first of a series of large open water pans that we would traverse today, and there was our first large herd of buffalo. We estimated 200, but we circled to take photos because invariably people underestimate the number of buffalo in a herd. We circled low and got a complete shot of the entire herd.
Later we [will] compile all the photos from the various waypoints of all elephant and buffalo herds and hand count them on the computer screen. We usually find that the buffalo are about 20 percent underestimated and that elephants are just about correct.
We carried on for four more hours this morning. It is hotter than yesterday. We accumulated hundreds of hartebeest, roan, ostrich, giraffe, old elephant carcasses, waterbuck, and a second herd of buffalo of over 400. But no elephants.
We passed into the zone where in 2006 still we found many groups of elephants. There were none.
As we got further to the north on the east side of the park we ran into a herd of 400 camels. They were outside the park boundary but only by a few hundred meters. There were a large number of nomadic camps, cows, sheep and goats.
The number of elephant carcasses from years past continued to accumulate.
NGS photo of Rigueik Plain waterhole by Michael Nichols
Total for the day: 0 elephants, 203 old elephant carcasses. We do not find them all by any means. Some burn, some are hidden by the grass.
We can only hope we have a large package of elephants to the north of us.
Elephant carcasses found in Zakouma National Park in 2007.
NGS photo by Michael Nichols
Earlier entries by Mike Fay:
Day 1: March 4, 2009 (Survey begins)
Day 2: March 5, 2009 (Granite mountains, Bon village, eastern center of the park)
For maps, photos and data from the 2006 survey please go to National Geographic magazine’s Ivory Wars.