This symbolic act reinforced the substantive steps Chad has been taking to save its remaining elephants, now estimated to number about 450 in Zakouma National Park.
Elephants in Chad have suffered some of the most severe poaching pressure seen in Africa in recent decades. Never strangers to poaching, they learned how to anticipate and avoid the ravages of horsemen from southern Chad and neighboring Sudan.
Civil war, poverty, and the proliferation of arms all weighed against them. As the price of ivory rose, the inadequate protection they received, even in their last holdout, Zakouma National Park, in the south, was no match for the roving bands of poachers armed with sophisticated weaponry, satellite telephones, and a network that fed increasingly rare ivory into international trafficking syndicates.
A Grim Story
At face value, the news coming from Zakouma was yet another page in the growing tome of depressing accounts of protected areas that could not safeguard beleaguered populations whose numbers plummeted in just a few years from more than 4,000 to the current estimate of around 450 in 2010.
Stressed and tormented by the poachers’ depredations, females stopped breeding. The elephants showed the signs we’ve seen elsewhere: Dwindling survivors in circumscribed pockets, massing together like war refugees—nervous and agitated, defensive and somber, and desperately seeking peace.
One would think that this last sizable elephant population in Chad would disappear as did the rest of the larger metapopulation that annually migrated across the border with neighboring Central African Republic (CAR).
As late as the mid-1980s, Manovo-Gounda-St. Floris National Park held the southern range of many of the Zakouma elephants. My colleagues Mike Fay, Andrea Turkalo, and I studied this population in the run-up to their final years, as Sudanese horsemen killed them by the thousands, forcing the survivors to stay in somewhat better protected Zakouma park in the northern part of their range.
In the early 1980s we’d noted, every year at the beginning of the rainy season, the gathering of more than 1,500 elephants on the floodplain of the Gounda River. That’s when they were most vulnerable: They were obligated to stay near water, and the grasses that hid them in the rainy season were burned by the vanguard of the horsemen.
As the wet season took hold, we tracked elephants departing on their annual migration northward to Chad along a broad, ancient trail. We considered Chad the hinterland—fine elephant habitat, but forbidding because rebels, horsemen, and poachers there would shoot at you while you slept in your bush camp.
South African conservationist Pete Morkel walks away after having thrown gasoline on the pyre of elephant tusks. (Photograph courtesy African Parks/AFP Photo/Marco Longari)
Fast forward to the early 2000s, when we as conservationists with a special interest in elephants found ourselves in triage mode.
Zakouma represented the last refuge for savanna elephants in north-central Africa. A few preliminary visits confirmed the value of the park—one could still see 600 to 800 elephants in the same sort of tribal gatherings we’d seen in CAR—but also revealed its precarious hold on security.
Despite our recognition of the value and vulnerability of the Zakouma elephants, it proved difficult to help the Chadian government build the capacity of their extremely courageous and dedicated but sadly ill-equipped, outgunned, and poorly trained rangers.
With assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private donors, the Wildlife Conservation Society provided the most valuable tool for conservation—an aircraft. However, deploying the plane and developing the capacity to protect the park took time, and the elephants continued to suffer.
In the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, government officials were alarmed, knowing that the days of their country’s elephants were numbered unless swift and effective action was taken.
They cared very much about elephants, but their ability to react was limited. The arrival in Chad in 2010 of African Parks (AP) transformed hope and potential into that essential quality—action.
Working with Chadian officials, bolstering capacity, morale, and pride, AP turned the situation around, just when the last few hundred elephants out of a population that had been an order of magnitude higher a few years before risked blinking out forever.
The slaughter was stopped, and in 2013 no elephants were poached in Zakouma National Park for the first time in living memory.
Even more importantly, a bumper crop of young appeared, running through the savanna close to their mothers, and taking time at the seasonal waterholes to frolic and splash as young elephants are wont to do.
It seemed that the elephants themselves were making a statement, taking a stand, showing their resilience and strength.
Why Is Chad Different?
What enabled the last-ditch effort to succeed? Of course, it starts with the elephants, but without the political will of the government of Chad and support by President Idriss Déby, nothing would have worked.
Benefiting from the experience, hard work, and infusion of resources from the outside, AP and an intrepid team of Chadian rangers not only stopped the bleeding in the field but also helped develop a professional and competent force that now stands firmly in defense of the park.
Victory has not come easily or without great sacrifice.
One morning last year, as they conducted their morning prayers, six of the park’s rangers were murdered in 2012 by marauding Sudanese poachers. Those rangers made the ultimate sacrifice, and their heroism stands as testament to Chad’s ongoing fight to save its elephants.
We now see in Chad that most essential of qualities: President Déby is a vocal advocate of conservation and saving Chad’s natural heritage. Without his leadership, none of this would be possible.
With its ivory burn on February 21, Chad made a strong statement to the world. This action builds on the momentum of other nations that have destroyed their ivory stockpiles: Kenya, Gabon, Zambia, the Philippines, France, China, and the United States.
The contrast of Chad’s darkest days and the present light of protection and safety stands as a real example of what we need in Africa.
Across Africa, we have not yet succeeded. Words, empathy, and good intentions abound, but without action based on the awareness that must temper ivory lust, without the political will to act boldly and the essential capacity to protect elephants day and night, we will ultimately fail.
Despite setbacks and the heartbreaking news coming from Africa, no one who sees those 21 young Zakouma elephants running with the herds and embracing life can fail to be hopeful. Chad’s elephants must sense that they can survive.
Richard G. Ruggiero, Ph.D., is the Chief of the Branch of Africa at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation. During his 17 years of on-the-ground experience in Africa, he has worked extensively in Gabon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Republic of Congo, as well as Chad. His work now focuses on conservation policy, endangered species conservation, protected area design and management, wildlife security, the building of governance capacity related to wildlife conservation, and professional training.