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Survey in African Sanctuary Finds Elephants, at Last

One of the male elephants hanging around the Zakouma base camp   Photo courtesy J. Michael Fay On the second to last day in an aerial survey of Zakouma National Park’s elephant population, conservationist J. Michael Fay finds a large herd and several smaller groups. “What great relief,” Fay writes in this fourth entry of...


One of the male elephants hanging around the Zakouma base camp


Photo courtesy J. Michael Fay

On the second to last day in an aerial survey of Zakouma National Park’s elephant population, conservationist J. Michael Fay finds a large herd and several smaller groups. “What great relief,” Fay writes in this fourth entry of his blog from the field. The first three days of the survey yielded only elephant carcasses.

Texas-size Zakouma park in Chad is on the frontline of central Africa’s ivory wars. Once a haven for hundreds of thousands of elephants, the reserve has been the scene of rampant poaching that has reduced the elephant population to fewer than a thousand animals. 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.

Fay, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic, 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 4: March 7, 2009

I coughed through the night. I have found two remedies — one is to sit up in bed — that calms the cough. I have also made my own cough syrup a combination of Johnny Walker, local honey, local lemon and mint tea. Swig down enough of that and at least you can sleep.

The plane was full of gas and the windows washed and we were airborne again at 5:45 a.m., all systems are working perfectly.

This new laser altimeter we have is awesome, tells you exactly how high above the ground you are, so we keep a tight 3D path on our transect lines.

Zakouma-elephant-herd-picture 3.jpgToday is the day we enter the core of where elephant observations have been made on previous dry season counts.

The first calls from the back of the plane were of warthog, waterbuck, buffalo, and old elephant carcasses. As the morning hours progressed we got a large elephant herd about every hour or so and a wide variety of wildlife — and the omnipresent old bones of elephants scattered across the land.

We were documenting our third large herd of buffalo. These guys were deep in a riverine forest that makes them real hard to count — maybe 500, maybe 800. You can’t get good pictures of them either.

NGS photo of elephant herd seen in Zakouma in 2007 by Michael Nichols

As we circled, Darren yelled “ellies ” — on the right side of the aircraft.

Another circle revealed a small herd huddled under an anogeissus tree.

We counted 28 elephants. They were quite close to the tourist camp Tinga. Darren said this group had been hanging out close to the camp for some time, it was undoubtedly them.

Lots of times when elephants are under pressure they tend to concentrate where friendly humans are. This is why we find the largest males in the park hanging around the Zakouma Camp. With fewer elephants there is less competition for food so a small herd can afford to stay in one place.


Elephants at a waterhole in Zakouma in 2007

NGS photo by Michael Nichols

In 2006 at about the same time there were a few hundred elephants that would come to the waterhole past the bridge in Tinga every day. This put heavy pressure on the vegetation there.

We flew on, transect after transect, no elephants.

We were picking up good numbers of giraffe, which was good because it seemed we were shy on these guys.

Right on the eastern border of the park we spotted four herds of camels,three of 100 and another of about 450.


We also picked up several nomad camps perched just outside the park. There were also plantations of sorghum out in the seasonally flooded plain to the east of the park.

Nomads in the Zakouma National Park area in 2007.

NGS photo by Michael Nichols

As we reached the largest pan in the park, Rigueik, we could see a large herd of buffalo. They were right in the middle of the grassy plain, perfect for a photo and an exact count. This is one of the largest herds of buffalo in the park, maybe 800 strong.

To know the buffalo were doing well made us feel good.

In the afternoon we continued north. We kept accumulating more giraffes, lots of herds of ten and more. The antelope numbers were also climbing respectably so we were confident we would either show stable or increasing populations for all species, except elephants.

We were on our last two very short transects for the day. It was starting to get dark, the sun had already set and we were flying over the guard post Goz Djerat at the northeast main entrance to the park.

Bechir spotted a group of 20 elephants about 500 meters from the camp.

These guys had also been spotted by several people around Goz Djerat.

Then we saw more elephants and, across the road, outside the block, more.

We circled, taking in wider and wider swaths, and under the trees we were seeing groups of 20-50 elephants scattered across the land.

What great relief, with one day of survey left we have found a large herd. How many we couldn’t know and it was too dark to count. We would have to figure it out tomorrow.

The fear was that they would travel a long distance in the night or worse disperse in all directions making the count very difficult.


Elephant in Zakouma National Park, 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)

Day 3: March 6, 2009 (Gara Plain, Kieke Village, Rigueik pan)

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


Mike Fay interviews nomads during an earlier survey at Zakouma.

NGS photo by Michael Nichols

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn