Elephant Guards Murdered in Chad

During the coming months National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence J. Michael Fay will report from central African countries that have elephants—Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Kenya, and possibly Democratic Republic of Congo. He’ll be working on elephant conservation measures, now needed more urgently than ever in the face of the current poaching crisis. Not only are elephants dying, but people too.


Chad: September 2012. Zakaria Ibrahim, Brahim Khamis, Daoud Aldjouma, Djibrine Adoum Goudja, and Idriss Adoum—all dead, gunned down during dawn prayers. Where? North of Zakouma National Park in Chad, central Africa. When? September 3, 2012. Why? They were assassinated for protecting the last of the elephant herds found in the vast stretches between the Sahara Desert and the Congo forest.

Something is seriously wrong with that.

When I first helped survey Zakouma National Park in 2005, we counted 3,885 elephants. In 2006 we counted 3,020, and the alarm bells were sounded. In 2009 the number was down to 617. Today there are 457 elephants in Zakouma.

Only a few dozen medium-size bulls remain, and two babies. The rest are females who for the past eight years have been running for their lives, pursued by men killing them for their tiny tusks. Now the hunted are the guards who protect elephants. With the price of ivory gone vertical, and an almost limitless demand, it would seem that the intent of those doing the killing is to kill until the elephants are gone. These guards are in the way.

If history is any indicator, the poachers will not stop when the elephants are gone. Just as these men turned their focus to elephants once the black rhinos were gone, they will turn to every other species, including humans, as sources of revenue through banditry, armed hold-ups, and worse.

A sixth ranger, Hassan Djibrine, has not yet been found since the attack, and the camp cook, with a gun shot wound, walked two days to Fodjo, the nearest village, to report the massacre. The team was based about 60 miles north of the park in a place identified in 2006 when Annie, a satellite-tracked elephant in Zakouma, was killed near a swamp frequented by large herds in the wet season.

This year a security presence was established near the swamp. African Parks, which manages Zakouma with the government of Chad, believes that the slaying of these guards was a revenge attack for an incident on August 12, when the team raided a poacher’s camp after gunshots were heard and the carcasses of two elephants discovered. Two elephant tusks, telecommunications equipment, and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition were confiscated during the raid. But the poachers escaped.

Think of the horror. Elephants are among the most protective of their families of any species. Babies are cherished and guarded by all in a group. In the past seven years, every individual elephant alive in Zakouma today has witnessed eight family members get shot. Mothers have abandoned or lost their young, their only defense being to run for their lives at every crack of a gun. All this horror so a human being somewhere can satisfy the desire for ivory.

What is disheartening is that between the 2011 and 2012 surveys in Zakouma, the number of elephants remained stable because of increased pressure by the Chadian government and NGO partners banding with local people to halt the poaching. The thought was that maybe the Zakouma elephants had seen a turning point. Maybe these poor animals would get a reprieve after watching their families slaughtered, their faces hacked off.

The worry now is that the dry season is coming, when elephants are most exposed. Zakouma could be targeted just as Bouba-Ndjida park was during last year’s dry season, when that herd of 400 elephants was decimated.

Just over a century ago a man named William Stamps Cherry traveled in the vicinity of the Oubangui River, south of Zakouma. He was the first white man in this area, which at the time was being ravaged by Sultan Senoussi for slaves and ivory. Cherry said of the elephants: “There is no way of estimating the number of elephants in the interior. It may be five hundred thousand. It may be a million. I think more likely millions.”

In “Last Stand in Zakouma,” the cover story in the March 2007 issue of National Geographic Magazine, J. Michael Fay reported that while poachers were slaughtering some of the last surviving central African elephants for their tusks, a refuge in Chad gave this endangered species armed protection—-and a fighting chance. Click on the cover for story, photos, and video.

In the early 1970s there were still well over 100,000 elephants in this area. During the last great frenzy for ivory, in the late 70s and early 80s, we lost most of them. When the ivory ban came into effect in 1990, more than 90 percent had been slaughtered.

Today in the entire region, the size of Texas, there are fewer than 3,000 elephants concentrated in two parks: Zakouma and Garamba, possibly less than one percent of the population in Cherry’s time.

During the past three decades we have watched elephants extirpated in giant swaths of territory. The populations in the savannas of South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Democratic Republic of Congo have been relentlessly hunted. They now occupy maybe 3 percent of the range they had in 1960, not because of local human need for land but because of a greedy few trading ivory illegally.

Elephants all over the continent are having a tough time. Garamba is challenged by the Lord’s Resistance Army and hunting from helicopters.

We’re seeing active poaching in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and all of the forest countries, especially Congo and Gabon, which have the mother lode of forest elephants.

Some would argue that we need to kill the demand. Well, a friend of mine has said, “In China if you somehow managed to convince 99.9 percent of the population not to buy ivory, that 0.1 percent who remain unconvinced represents 1.3 million people still wanting to buy ivory.” That’s three times more people than there are elephants left in Africa.

There is no doubt that we’re going to have to step up protections for elephants, top to bottom, and fast. Lest the guards of Zakouma died in vain.

Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.
  • BermudaTriangle

    Thank you to all who have given their blood, sweat, and tears to protecting these amazing animals, who have every right to walk this land as we do. Anyone who is partially responsible for the destruction of a species is equally as dangerous to his own. They must be caught, charged, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to protect not just elephants, but all that call Africa home.

  • Michelle Walker

    Horrifically sad. Poachers should be put to death and their faces hacked off, pictures of this should be posted everywhere as a deterrent. Does that sound harsh? Tough, thats the reality of the trade and only when people are shocked will things change. People who buy ivory should be charged with murder and punished accordingly. I do not any support tolerance of this vile trade by human excrement. The greed of humans must be halted. This is a war and should be treated as such. All participants have played their part in the slaughter and do not deserve a place on this beautiful planet. Oh and boycott China they are a vile race in terms of animal rights.

  • Geoffrey Wells

    Great article, however we must devalue the price of tusks so that they cannot be traded for arms. See my essay at: http://wp.me/p2Bjdn-4Y

  • Petter Granli

    Great article about the ivory crisis – the ongoing killing spree must be stopped for the future of elephants, biodiversity and all those in Africa dependent on elephants to attract visitors. Not to mention all of us believing that elephants as an important symbol for all wildlife is vital for people around the world and for the future of mankind. Please help in spreading this article – and the Blood Ivory report in the October issue of National Geographic Magazine.

  • Marilyn

    Clearly the math isn’t in favor of the elephants. There are trained anti-poaching ops who can’t get jobs because the funding isn’t there. One side is equipped with money and weapons for war on animals and humans, the other has their hand out for donations that can’t and don’t match. This is not acceptable. These animals belong to the world, they are a global treasure and have a right to life and habitat. I believe that the World Banks and businesses that plunder the planet should be taxed to fund the fight against the organized crime syndicates that fund this slaughter. This ongoing killing field is making life not worth living.

  • Steve Gulick

    It is a war. A war the the other side is winning. They are winning because they take it seriously and act. We need to the same – now – because for the elephants there is no later.

  • ann williams

    hopefully the murderers will be caught and put to death, but the decimation of eles and is a global problem and all countries should be provided ”rangers”, soldiers, arms and helicopters to fight this . if we could get rid of kuny and the lords resistance army, that would be a small step. all nations should be contributing $$$ for this cause. possibly all helicopters or planes should be approved by governments prior to going into the air. it is the helicopters that scare me the most. ultimately we should send military troups from all over the globe to aid in this deplorable situation. all game and hunting safaru camps should be closed too

  • Bellachella

    Thanks for these informative articles. My heart breaks for the murdered guards’ families, and for the elephants of course. The ongoing poaching holocaust is unforgivable. Elephants move closer to extinction everyday, and we weep and wring our hands, yet it continues at an accelerated pace because there is not enough political will to save their lives. And for what??? So that greedy, self-important humans can have carved chopsticks, religious ornaments and trinkets? This will be abated only when the cost of poaching becomes higher than the benefits. I’m not a politician but there has to be better solutions since what we are doing is clearly not working. Shoot the poachers on sight, make the punishment for ivory possession the same as cocaine, stop giving aid if countries don’t do more to protect their elephants and wildlife, and help countries that are trying to save their elephants by giving more aid to help protect their wildlife rangers. We need to do something NOW before wild elephants are extinct.

  • Marilyn

    We need to demand accountablility and global war on poaching. Funded by every government and international corporation, bank,. The ones who possess all of the money thanks to the economic monopolies they exist in.
    We need an army, immediately, without borders, with proper scrutiny and accountability to a tribunal staffed by proven wildlife people with knowledge and empathy. We need this now. Lets get loud, get TV, THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. We need to be interviewed on national morning talk shows, nightly news, This should be a media blitsz for action. What are we waiting for? Where is TV EFFIN NEWS ON THIS. WHY ARE WE RELIGATED TO PETITIONS AND DONATIONS? THIS IS A GLOBAL CRIME.

  • ingrid vasconcellos

    3 years ago I spent time in Chobe and along the river from Catchicow eastwards….a new road was being constructed along this route from Catchicow to the Chobe town of .This double carriage way road was being built by Chinese contractors who has set up a huge walled compound on the outskirts of Cachicow. At the time it was very clear to me that this was being built to access the elephant herds in this area where they are the largest herds in Africa and have access of movement to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana and Namibia. I am appauled that the governments of these 5 countries did not have the forethought to see what was being done…..a double highway from the small remote town of cachicow (which does have a small beef industry) is being used as a screen for export of tusks along this new road to the airport at Kasane by trucks shipping meat to China…why can no one see this clearly????? and do governments think this road-building is a hand of friendship from China……wake up Africa…you are loosing your tourism industry as you fiddle…yes it will not end there at all….do something now!!!!!

  • Liz Rowland

    I can’t see how the slaughter will stop unless the demand for ivory stops. It seems to me that the we need a huge education campaign in China and Thailand to explain to people how ivory is obtained (one survey found that most people questioned thought tusks fell out naturally, like teeth). We need more connections with influential people who care in China and Thailand, such as Yoa Ming. If anyone has ideas on how individuals here in the US can help to educate adults and school kids in Asia, I’d love to hear them. Time is of the essence,

  • Sarah Browne

    I seriously HATE some of my fellow “man”. Utterly disgusting lowlife scum – those that poach and kill and those that want the ivory and those that buy it.

  • karen ogden

    since you will never stamp out the demand, is there any way to take the tusks off without killing the elephants? if there were no tusks on the animals, there would be no reason to kill them. how stupid to be so worked up over ivory. essentially an elephant toenail.

  • Alexandra Saunders

    My heart breaks as I read your report. What have we done . It is shocking and outrageous. We are destroying our planet. My heart goes out to all who are on the ground trying to help the elephants,

  • AAPB

    This is a very sad news. I trained those guards beween 2003 and 2005. Hopping than one day justice will be done at last. RIP

  • Jerry Haigh

    A terrible story, but the thing that catches my eye is the reference to the Chinese. Have just read Michael Vaillant’s brilliant “Tiger” and written my own material about how they(the Chinese) don’t give a tinker’s damn about wildlife conservation (unless it is their own flagship Giant Panda). The presence of the Chinese in so many African countries may bring new roads, but these roads bring the wildlife ever closer to the poachers.

  • Shirley

    I agree with everything that’s been said. Something must be done to educate the Chinese and the Thai. Their Governments must be made to ban the trade and sale of Ivory with heavy penalties for breaking the law. A huge campaign with photos of slaughtered elephants should be shown all over these countries. Those African countries that have allowed the Chinese in are stupid, naiive beyond words. I’ve seen some of their road building in Africa. For their benefit not the benefit of the people who are still made to walk in the road because the Chinese can’t build a foot path along the new roads!!!! Everyone should boycott China and Thailand. I agree with one comment they are a vile race in terms of animal rights. The poachers must be hunted down and shot, can the various armies not do this and protect elephant herds. I can’t understand how the poachers always win. They must be eliminated.

  • Hilde Vanleeuwe

    I recommend a grey helmet unit of intervention, made of highly skilled mersonaries. The USA could help with that. I’ll head the team with pleasure.

  • Julia

    We need to act now. This story only reaffirms that there is not enough being done and that the time to act is now. Our organization is working with a new technology in order to combat this war against the wildlife. Visit us at http://www.wildlandsecurity.org for more information and how to get involved.

  • Samm

    we have to do something now!!!!

    I am a really big fan of elephants is they get murdered, I will cry and be sad for the rest of my life i and we have to do something


  • Karen

    The slaughter of elephants should be a global health concern. Human over population of the planet leads to scarce resources, which causes murderous disregard for all entities. Who or what is next?

  • Dominic Fomengia

    The story is a pity, I wish i never read it, I would have been feeling better than now. It shows that the government and the NGOs involve have not yet recognised the problems of the local people (Poarchers), thus the main reason for this continuous mess. I suggest the source of their lifely hood should be greatly looked upon, else all the attempts to stop them will keep going in vain. Unless this is done, they will keep doing it to survive.
    Secondly, “why chased smoke and allow fire to keep burning” Where are all those guns and bullets used to hunts the elephants manufactured and sold?, they can be tracked. If good people are sincere enough, there will be better solutions to all this insults on conservationist.

  • ron duncan

    if jesus or budda were alive today they would say that all life is saqcred, please do not make images of ivory or gold to honor us, honor life! admire love of all species of animals. to kill is the biggest sin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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