The headquarters at Zakouma National Park, in southeastern Chad, is a sand-colored structure with a crenellated parapet that gives it the look of an old desert fortress. Outside the door to the central control room on the second floor hangs an image of a Kalashnikov rifle, circled in red, with a slash: No weapons allowed inside. Kalashnikovs are ubiquitous in Zakouma. All the rangers carry them. So do the intruders who come to kill wildlife.
Acacias shade the compound, Land Cruisers arrive and depart, and not many steps away, several elephants drink from a pool. Although the animals seem relaxed here, so close to the headquarters hubbub, they aren’t tame; they are wary but thirsty. Zakouma, a national park since 1963, has at times been a war zone for elephants. Fifty years ago, Chad as a whole may have had as many as 300,000, but from the mid-1980s that number declined catastrophically due to wholesale slaughter by well-armed poachers, until Zakouma became an uneasy refuge for the largest remnant, about 4,000 elephants.
Then, during the first decade of this century, more than 90 percent of Zakouma’s elephant population was butchered, mostly by Sudanese horsemen riding in from the east on paramilitary raids for ivory. (See “Ivory Wars: Last Stand in Zakouma,” National Geographic, March 2007.) These raiders are known as janjaweed, an Arabic word loosely translated as “devils on horseback,” though some ride camels. Their origins lie among nomadic Arab groups, highly skilled equestrians, who, once armed and supported by the Sudanese government, became ruthless strike forces during the conflict in Darfur and, later, freelance bandits lusting after ivory. For a while it seemed they might kill every elephant in Chad.