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Elephants Making Last Stand in Besieged African Park, Conservationists Find

This photo of buffalo in Zakouma National Park was used to determine that there are exactly 794 animals in the herd. Photo mosaics made by Mike Fay and his team of conservationists allow them to make an accurate assessment of the types and numbers of animals in the sanctuary. Photo courtesy Mike Fay On the...


This photo of buffalo in Zakouma National Park was used to determine that there are exactly 794 animals in the herd. Photo mosaics made by Mike Fay and his team of conservationists allow them to make an accurate assessment of the types and numbers of animals in the sanctuary.

Photo courtesy Mike Fay

On the final day of an aerial survey of Zakouma National Park in Chad, central Africa, a team of conservationists led by J. Michael Fay spotted and photographed several herds of elephants. The animals will be carefully counted on photographs taken by the team and follow-up flights will be made for clarifications.

Zakouma-on-the-map.jpgTexas-size Zakouma park is on the frontline of central Africa’s ivory wars. Once a haven for hundreds of thousands of elephants, the reserve has been the target 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.

Once the final number of the current survey is in, Fay will share his thoughts about the status of Zakouma’s embattled elephants. “I have been at this battle for almost 30 years and this is the last stand,” he writes in this blog entry.


Zakouma Survey 2009

By J. Michael Fay

Day 5: March 8, 2009

The bronchitis is still with me, but I kind of feel like my body is winning at this point

We have been seeing millions of quelea birds along the river near camp here going to their roosts in the evening — amazing site.


Today is the final day of the survey. We were going to try find and then decipher that big herd of elephants [seen on the previous day] before we embarked on our survey lines.

NGS photo of Zakouma elephants in 2007 by Michael Nichols

We got to about 3 km north of the airstrip and we could already see a few small herds milling around the waterhole just to the east of the road, so in the block that we surveyed yesterday.

One herd of 20 was headed south and another bigger group north.

On the west side of the road was the vast majority of the group.

We flew over one group that was probably a total of about 150 individuals. We took photos.

We took a few long loops to the east of the road down to Rigueik to see if there were elephants headed south. We saw none so we assumed that the vast majority of elephants were in the block to be surveyed today and broke to start transects on the south end of the block.


I believed that we would capture the entire herd on the transects.

To the south of the block we started to record large numbers of giraffe, some good sized herds of buffalo and the normal mix of antelopes, warthogs, ostrich and the ubiquitous elephant carcasses. It seemed that for all species except for elephants we were doing quite well.

NGS photo of Zakouma elephants in 2007 by Michael Nichols 

We started hitting elephants about half way up in the block. They were north of where we had seen them in the morning and on the move. This was a herd of about 80 or so.

There would be more further to the north.

Two transects later we hit another group of 80 or so.

And some transects north of that we hit the big group.

There were small groups huddled under about 10 acacia trees in a row. We estimated the number at some hundreds.

It seems with elephants you always overestimate a bit and with buffalo you underestimate.


NGS photo of elephants in Zakouma in 2007 by Michael Nichols

We positioned ourselves along the line of elephants and shot three mosaics of pictures that we could stitch together and count them very accurately. It looked like there were over 300.

We hit a few more large herds of buffalo, giving us another 1,000 or so to add to the total. They were hard to photograph, kind of hidden below a canopy of forest. Their exact numbers would be hard to count in the photos.

It will be a few days before we know what the total elephant number is, but I think we are looking at just over 600 total.

We plan on doing some follow-up complete counts, counting only elephants. So stay tuned — we will have a good number in the next 4 or 5 days.

Then I will give you my thoughts on these results. I am remaining a counter here, [showing] no emotion, but believe me there is a lot. I have been at this battle for almost 30 years and this is the last stand.


NGS photo of elephant carcass and vultures in 2007 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)

Day 4: March 7, 2009 (First live elephants and a large herd of buffalo)

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

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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