Even after years in Africa, Lorna Labuschagne never tires of the excitement of seeing the continent’s wild animals. But a plane trip over Chad’s Zakouma National Park in late 2013 was a particularly remarkable moment for her and several colleagues who were working to save elephants in the Central African wilderness. Below, they spied at least 21 new elephant calves.
“The babies were in a marsh, wet and enjoying the water and not hiding under their mothers,” says Labuschagne, marketing and tourism officer with African Parks, the South Africa-based conservation group that manages Zakouma. “We had been seeing new calves for a few months … but never more than seven at once. As you can imagine we were ecstatic.”
The dire situation facing Africa’s elephants has become headline news. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists last month warned that poaching had caused elephant populations to reach a tipping point on the continent where more animals are being killed than are being born.
In Central Africa, the number of elephants has declined by 60 percent in just a decade. Zakouma, however, is bucking that trend. There has not been a single case of poaching inside the 19,000-square-mile park for nearly three years.
That’s very different from the situation at the end of the last decade, when a wave of killings hit the park, near the border with Central African Republic. The number of elephants that inhabit the park for most of the year fell from about 4,000 in 2006 to just 450 by 2011.
Poaching in Zakouma surged during the mid-2000s as rebellions and civil war overtook Chad and the Darfur region in neighboring Sudan. From 2006 to 2009, armed groups on horseback — many of them Sudanese suspected of being linked to Darfur rebel groups — moved through the park, killing elephants with impunity. As Chad’s government struggled to retain power, elephant conservation was low on its priority list.
At the same time, Chinese investment was starting to flow to Chad as well as many other African nations. Demand for ivory grew; on several occasions, businessmen involved in the Chinese oil industry were reportedly arrested at Chad’s N’Djamena International Airport with ivory in their luggage.
In early 2009, just a few weeks after poachers slaughtered more than 60 animals in a single incident, Zakouma’s workers were despondent. Darren Potgieter, a South African pilot who carried out aerial surveillance flights, had found a sole calf cowering under a tree, surrounded with the bloodied carcasses of its family. At the time, it was just the latest in a list of shocking incidents in which poachers had used horses and guns to scare the animals into a tight group and then killed all of them, regardless of whether they had tusks.
And it wasn’t just the elephants that suffered: In September 2012, five Chadian game guards employed by African Parks at Hebane patrol post, an area outside the park where the animals spend the dry season, were brutally murdered in what is believed to have been a reprisal by poachers.