The Rare African Park Where Elephants Are Thriving
The elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park were supposed to have been wiped out by now. Instead their numbers are growing.
The visitors had been in Chad’s Zakouma National Park for nearly a week, delighting in the wildlife they’d traveled thousands of miles to see: hoary buffalos; towering giraffes; cartoonish hartebeests; storks, eagles, pelicans, and songbirds galore; even a leopard prowling at dusk. But so far no elephants.
Now with less than a day left in their stay, luck was finally on their side: Signals from radio-collared elephants indicated that Zakouma’s herd of more than 500—likely Africa’s largest—was in the vicinity. A trail of beach ball-size footprints, fresh dung piles, and snapped saplings confirmed it, as did trumpeting and deep, growl-like noises that resonated from the opposite bank of a crocodile-infested river. No matter—the visitors took off their shoes and waded across the knee-deep water.
Rian Labuschagne, the park’s manager, quietly led the group through thick brush and tall grass. Abruptly he stopped, raised a hand and pointed: elephants, about 50 of them. Using their dexterous trunks, the adults were munching on the bushy ends of branches like broccoli. Babies at play scuttled here and there.
Suddenly a large bull stepped out from behind a thicket a mere 30 feet away, ears flared, head held high, tusks gleaming in the afternoon sun. Some members of the tour group instinctively took a step back, others eagerly raised their cameras. “Don’t make a sound,” Labuschagne said under his breath. The standoff lasted a heart-pounding minute until the bull, satisfied that the intruders posed no threat, turned to rejoin his family.
“I’ve seen a lot of elephants, but that was one of the most incredible walking experiences I’ve ever had,” Josh Iremonger, a private safari guide from Botswana, said later. “The hairs on my arms are still standing up.”
That Iremonger and the others were able to enjoy such an encounter in this remote corner of central Africa seemed impossible as little as five years ago. Impossible because by now Zakouma’s elephants were all supposed to be dead.
Poaching has ravaged Africa’s elephants, largely to feed the appetite for ivory in China and elsewhere in Asia. Between 2007 and 2014 poaching contributed to a 30 percent decline in savanna elephant populations. In Zakouma the killing began earlier than in most places, and the losses were more terrible. In 2002 the park was home to more than 4,000 elephants, but by 2010 that figure had plummeted to a mere 400—a 90 percent drop. Experts predicted that Zakouma’s remaining elephants would be gone within two or three years if the situation stayed unchanged.
But it did change—drastically.
Desperate for a solution, in 2010 the Chadian government called in African Parks, a South Africa-based nonprofit that specializes in rehabilitating failing protected areas around the continent. Relying on a mix of expertise, luck, and trial and error, Rian and Lorna Labuschagne, the South African husband-and-wife team who took over management of the park, have turned things around. Under their watch poaching has been dramatically reduced, and the elephant population is growing for the first time in years.
“Zakouma’s recovery is extraordinary,” says Chris Thouless, a strategic advisor at Save the Elephants, a Kenya-based nonprofit. “The elephant population was definitely on the way out, and African Parks has saved it.”
AN UNCERTAIN BEGINNING
The Labuschagnes were “living in paradise”—a beachside camp in Tanzania—when they got the call. A job had just opened in Chad, and given their 30 years of experience working in reserves spanning Malawi to Kenya, they seemed a perfect fit. The couple felt ready for a new challenge, but when they first visited Zakouma, they were dismayed. “I didn’t like it at all,” Rian says. “It was so flat.”
Given the rampant poaching and turmoil in the region—civil unrest and cross-border conflict with Sudan plagued Chad from 2004 to 2009—they also suspected that the country’s conservation situation was futile.
Yet African Parks managed to convince them to take the job, largely by pointing out that—unlike in most protected areas around the continent where conservationists serve as advisors to government employees who have the final say—at Zakouma they would have full managerial control. This also meant they’d be responsible for all the outcomes in the Rhode Island-size protected area, good or bad.
The Labuschagnes soon learned that Zakouma’s previous managers had been in denial about the poaching problem even as the park was under siege. “It was seen as embarrassing to find 50 dead elephants, so they didn’t admit it,” Rian Labuschagne says. “They’d try to put it under the carpet.”
For years heavily armed Janjaweed outlaws, mostly from Sudan, had traveled on horseback to Zakouma and the surrounding area where they would camp out for two or three weeks, slaughtering all the elephants they could find. When they finished, they called in camel trains to carry the “blood tusks” from the newly killed elephants back across the border.
The raw ivory made its way to Khartoum where some 150 carvers transformed it into trinkets—jewelry, figurines, chopsticks, and more. Conservationist Esmond Bradley Martin, who surveyed Sudanese markets in 2005, found that Chinese customers were buying 75 percent of the ivory that was for sale. Unconfirmed reports also indicated that some ivory was trafficked to Asia through Libya, Sudan, and Egypt.
When the Labuschagnes arrived, in January 2011, the first thing they did was purge the park of “bad apples,” including eventually the head of anti-poaching. They also invested heavily in bolstering support on the ground. Zakouma’s rangers had no means to communicate and few options for traveling, so they were given GPS units, radios, and horses. The Labuschagnes also gave radios to community headmen around the park, encouraging them to phone in suspicious activities, and promising tighter security in the region.
Perhaps most significant of all, the couple stayed at headquarters year-round. Previously, Zakouma’s personnel left the park for more than five months during the rainy season, gifting poachers with an unchecked elephant-killing bonanza. When the rains stopped and staff returned, they tallied the losses.
In April 2006 conservationist J. Michael Fay visited the park and counted 900 fewer elephants than in 2005. And when he returned in the middle of the rainy season that year, he discovered the massacred, rotting bodies of a hundred elephants just outside Zakouma’s boundaries. Poachers there shot at his plane.
“The red lights came on when Mike Fay was here and showed that there is massive, massive poaching, especially in the wet season,” Labuschagne says. “The argument was that it was so wet you could do nothing, but everyone ignored the fact that the poachers had a free go during those months.”
MASSACRE AT HEBAN
Amid these changes Zakouma’s 60 or so rangers also underwent a training overhaul. Though heavily armed, they lacked finesse and discipline in clashes with poachers. They preferred to spray an area with bullets—“the more noise the better,” Labuschagne says. “It was shoot everything you have, then go in and see if there’s anything left.”
To transform them from Rambo to Jason Bourne, in 2012 he brought in Patrick Duboscq, a retired French police officer. Duboscq started with the very basics—paintball guns—and worked up to pistols, snipers, and combat shooting. “I trained those guys as I would the SWAT in France,” he says. Part of the job also entailed building up the men’s confidence and convincing them that, contrary to local lore, Sudanese raiders possessed no supernatural powers and could in fact be defeated.
The impact these changes made was almost immediate: In 2011 Zakouma lost just seven elephants. Government officials who previously opposed outside involvement began to come around, providing more support. “At first, I was not enthusiastic about this African Parks thing, especially their model of taking the responsibility of managing the park from the government,” says Dolmia Malachie, with Chad’s Ministry of Environment and Fisheries and the coordinator of the country’s National Elephant Action Plan. “But when Rian came, he did a fantastic job. I don’t know of any other park manager who has been able to do as great a job as he did.”
In 2012 the Labuschagnes decided to expand their anti-poaching activities beyond the park’s boundaries. Radio collars they’d put on 10 elephants the year before had revealed that as the rains begin, the herd splits, with some animals migrating 60 miles north of Zakouma, to a place called Heban. So they built an airstrip and base there and sent rotating teams of rangers to camp out for the season.
In August of that year the Heban rangers heard shots and discovered that four elephants in the 200-strong herd had been killed. They couldn’t find the poachers responsible, but aerial reconnaissance located the outlaws’ camp. (Read: “How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa,” National Geographic, September 2015.)
The rangers confiscated more than a thousand rounds of ammunition, plus weapons, phones, solar panels, horse medicine, food, and more. They also found a notice of leave issued by a commander in the Sudanese army, suggesting that the hunting party was supported and organized by higher-ups in the military (Interpol and the Enough Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that combats genocide, later confirmed the link). With the poachers’ base destroyed, everyone assumed the threat had been neutralized.
But the poachers didn’t leave. Three weeks after the raid, when the Zakouma guards emerged from their tents for their morning prayer, the poachers—who had crept into the camp while the rangers slept—took their revenge. They shot five men. A sixth fled into the wilderness but was never found. Only the cook, who was also shot, survived, walking and swimming 12 miles to the nearest village to get help. The poachers took the rangers’ horses, guns, and ammunition and headed back to Sudan.
A PARK REBORN
Following the Heban killings, morale at the park sank to an all-time low. But the Labuschagnes were determined to carry on. “We learned from this and every other incident—and over-strengthened the system as a result,” Rian says. “For every step backward we take ten steps forward.”
They redoubled their efforts, using funding from African Parks and other donors. They built new bases around the park, brought in a second aircraft, and formed an elite rapid-response group of select rangers, the Mambas, named for a lethal African snake.
Issa Idriss, whose father was killed at Heban, now serves in the Mamba team and is proud of his work defending the park. “My father loved the reserve and wanted to preserve it. He didn’t want people to come in and kill everything,” he says. “I work here now, as my father wished, and someday I’d like for my sons and daughters to work here too.”
Heban was a turning point not only for those who defend the park but also for the elephants. Immediately after the shooting, all 200 of them headed straight back to the safety of Zakouma, and since then none have migrated out of its boundaries, even during the rainy season. In this way the elephants have aided in their own recovery, making the job of protecting them that much easier.
As months passed without further incident, the Labuschagnes decided it was time to share Zakouma and helped introduce luxury camping—the first such operation in Chad. This year they expect the venture to contribute an additional $250,000 to the park’s two-million-dollar annual budget. “Zakouma is probably the least discovered wildlife experience in Africa,” says Annemiek Hoogenboom, a recent visitor from Holland. “Walking with a herd of elephants was unique—a completely different experience from watching them from a four-wheel drive.”
Local visitors, however, are considered just as integral to conservation as high-paying foreign ones. Chadians stay at one of Zakouma’s camps for free, and every day in the dry season 40 citizens from around the region are bused in—totaling more than 5,000 last year. “They’ve been living close to the park, yet have never seen a giraffe or an elephant or a roan antelope,” Lorna Labuschagne says. “We tell them what’s happening here and what our experience has been, and we try to plant the seed of environmental education in them.”
Remarkably, Zakouma has gone just over a year without a known poaching incident, and for the first time in years the elephant population is growing again. From 2010 to 2013 there were virtually no new births; the terrorized animals were likely too stressed to reproduce. But in 2014 and 2015, about 50 babies were born, followed by another 70 last year.
The population now totals more than 500 and will likely continue to grow if protections stay strong—not only in Zakouma but beyond. Proposals are now in the works to create a new national park in Siniaka-Minia, a nearly one-million-acre reserve that historically served as a wet season home for Zakouma’s migrating elephants. Upgrading the area to a national park would bring formal protections, including ground patrols. “Currently it’s a reserve, but only on paper,” Lorna Labuschagne says.
Next month the Labuschagnes will leave Chad for Tanzania. “Both of us think the time is right to allow someone with different ideas and strengths to come in,” Rian says. He’s confident that Zakouma will continue to thrive without them.
“If you get the local people to take ownership and believe in the value of a park, then that is the strongest conservation system you can put in place,” he says. “Even if you leave, even if there’s political turmoil—whatever happens—that management team will go forward.”