Photo courtesy J. Michael Fay
Fay, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic, is trying to count the Zakouma elephants after recent estimates indicated that fewer than a thousand remain in the park. Zakouma 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 elephants in central Africa.
The 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.
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.
Zakouma Survey 2009
By J. Michael Fay
Day 2: March 5, 2009
My cold is worse, but we were up again at 4:30 and in the air by 5:45.
The air is clear now; the dust storm has completely subsided.
The day’s flying began to complete the southwestern block. We still had to fly the granite mountain and the village of Bon located in that part of the park.
NGS photo by Michael Nichols
This village [seen in the photo made a few years ago, above] was inside the park at inception and was not forced to move out. It is populated by Goula people who during the great slave raids from the north of the 18th and 19th centuries sought refuge in granite mountains spread from northern Central African Republic to this part of Chad.
This is a village that lives a very traditional existence with sorghum fields, a small amount of small livestock and a bit of fishing.
The wind was blowing hard from the east, and as we approached the hills there was that kind of turbulence where you feel like if you turn the plane too quickly it might just flip over. The village is at the base of the mountain on the east side and the sorghum fields cover and area to the east extending out about 15 kilometers [10 miles].
While outside the park you find very little wildlife around villages, here we were finding good numbers of kudu, giraffe, roan, hartebeest, and ostrich interspersed in the fields, despite the aridity of this zone now in the height of the dry season.
We proceeded to the second block, just to the east, that covers most of the center of the park.
NGS photo of elephants in Zakouma National Park in 2007 by Michael Nichols.
As we entered the block the calls started coming from the back of the plane: Elephant carcass old 3, roan 5, elephant carcass old 7, elephant carcass old 2, warthog 3, elephant carcass old 1, warthog 4, elephant carcass old 3, warthog 1, elephant carcass old 3, elephant carcass old 4 — and it continued like that for the next many transects.
At one point 40 observations in a row were of elephant carcasses totaling 80 individuals that would have fallen mostly between 2007 and 2008, probably right at the beginnings of the rains when the elephants traditionally venture into this part of the park.
As we proceeded north there was fewer carcasses and more wildlife mostly hartebeest, warthogs and roan.
We finished the day with the total number of elephants counted still at 0 and so far no large herds of buffalo.
My head felt like hell and it was a hot one. Tomorrow we enter block three where we should find elephants.
For maps, photos and data from the 2006 survey please go to National Geographic magazine’s Ivory Wars.
An elephant herd spotted in Zakouma National Park in 2007.
NGS photo by Michael Nichols