The Phoenix has risen – Travel Africa Magazine

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As our tiny Cessna 182 buzzes low over yellowing savannah and plum-red acacia gum trees, the pilot, Craig Reid, spots Africa’s most northerly elephant herd. Some 500 animals are sheltering within the safe embrace of spiny forest. A few high-spirited youngsters cavort in the thermal Sahelian heat. “You wouldn’t have seen this a decade ago, particularly so many babies,” says Reid, referring back to when Zakouma’s elephants were being poached into oblivion.

Back then, Chad’s civil war raged and armed Janjaweed militias from Sudan flooded over the country’s unprotected eastern border to remorselessly poach Zakouma’s ivory. Between 2000 and 2010 the herd reduced by 90 per cent to roughly 400. Reid says the traumatised elephants were scarcely breeding and any babies born could be killed in panicked stampedes.

“Look at them now,” he enthuses above the whining engine. “About 10 per cent are youngsters and that’s a good sign for a healthy herd.” A recent census has revealed a steady recovery to around 590. Zakouma National Park’s borders are now so well protected the last elephant was poached in 2016.

Johannesburg-based African Parks is a non-profit conservation organisation that manages national parks across Africa, some in extreme unsettled environments like Chad. When they take over management they insist upon qualified autonomy and a twenty-year tenure. When handed Zakouma’s lock and keys in 2010 by Chad’s autocratic but wildlife-loving President Idriss Déby, poaching and overgrazing were rampant. During a week exploring this game-rich park I was to experience how African Parks has turned around Zakouma’s fortunes, but also see how their all-encompassing management style impacts upon local communities and the wider environment in their pursuit to protect wildlife.

Camp Nomade. Photo credit Kyle de Nobrega, African Parks

Wedged between the Sahara and Central Africa’s tropical forests, the 3049 sq km park’s savannah environment is fashioned between climatic extremes. During the rainy season 80 per cent of Zakouma floods as animals abandon their territories to head for high ground. The previous park management was EU-funded yet maintained no staff presence during the rains, which proved a fertile window for poachers. Now Zakouma’s 122 anti-poaching personnel provide a year-round deterrent.

In the dry season (October-May) its River Salamat withers into disconnected pools as the savannah toasts golden under fierce heat. Coinciding with an extraordinary abundance and density of wildlife, this is the tourist season. Guests stay at either the lower-priced Tinga Camp or spend a weeklong slot at an exclusive bush camp with just eight luxury tents, called Camp Nomade. Some of Africa’s finest wildlife guides are allocated to Camp Nomade’s slots, including the brilliant eagle-eyed Rob Janisch from Zimbabwe, my guide for the week. African Parks hopes tourism will eventually contribute around one-fifth of their operational budget.

From the outset Zakouma’s diversity and abundance, particularly northern hemisphere variations and subspecies, proves simply mind-blowing. Upon arrival I’m greeted by a tableau of rare Kordofan giraffe, North African red-necked ostrich (reputedly the world’s largest bird) and central African buffalo, shyer and smaller than their southern Cape cousins. They’d declined to several hundred by the 1980s but now number thousands.

On my first night-safari I’m wowed by serval, honey badgers, and genet, and later striped hyena and pale fox. The birdlife is similarly epic. Along the Riguek wetland pan is a massed murmuration of quelea: tens of thousands dipping their feathers in water for moisture and forming pulsating clouds shape-shifting like patterns inside a lava-lamp.

“Such abundancy makes Zakouma one of Africa’s most special parks; there’s always something photobombing your picture. Snap any animal and you’ll see a hundred giraffes or a thousand birds behind it,” laughs Leon Lamprecht, Zakouma’s park manager. I miss no opportunity to drift by Leon’s house where elephants arrive daily to drink clean water from his hosepipe.

Mamba anti-poaching team. Photo credit Mark Stratton

Nurturing Zakouma’s abundance has required intensive effort, not least in establishing effective anti-poaching throughout, particularly protecting the elephants. “Before we took over, Zakouma was dangerous. It wasn’t just a few poachers, we’re talking one hundred armed guys in a column,” Leon says. “The first priority when my predecessor Rian Labuschagne arrived was establishing law enforcement. Animals will look after themselves in a safe environment.”

Anti-poaching is provided by their so-named ‘Mamba’ teams who I first encounter as Rob Janisch drives us south searching for the main elephant herd. We follow the Salamat’s bouffant riverine forest fringing diminishing olive-green pools wriggling with fish being gorged by spectacular concentrations of pelicans watched by flotillas of Nile crocodiles. Near a swaying stand of borassus palms rare regional endemics like black-breasted barbets are, according to Rob, “birders’ equivalent of seeing ten leopards”.

Some 37 elephants are radio-collared so the herd’s location is perpetually monitored, although in thick bush sightings prove fleeting: as when a panicked female herd with two tiny babies crash through the vegetation and hurry across the track. “The poor things are still skittish, almost like they retain PTSD of what went on before,” suggests Rob. He also explains why Zakouma’s elephants are small tusked. “Big tuskers were shot out first so over time breeding bulls with smaller tusks passed on their genes”.

Aiding our search is a six-man Mamba anti-poaching patrol called Phantom. Their chef-de-poste, Daoud, is ex-Chadian army and leads a heavily-armed team in military fatigues that has been trailing the herd for ten days, yet rarely catching sight of it. Daoud says they’ve not engaged Janjaweed poachers for four years.

“These days we’re apprehending mainly illegal fishermen, but remain wary for ivory-poachers,” he says. He recalls their last gunfight back in 2014 and when six rangers were murdered at prayer by poachers in a single incident. “In one fight my chef-de-poste was killed alongside me. But Zakouma is peaceful now.”

I’m quite taken aback by this strong paramilitary force. Is it overkill? “People talk about over-militarisation, but our men must defend themselves if they come under attack,” Leon insists later. “We want to intimidate poachers. To say ‘get out or there will be consequences’. For the locals we’ve pursued a carrot and stick approach. We won’t tolerate incursions into Zakouma, but they will benefit because we believe conservation is the best land use management.”

His belief about land management bears merit outside the park boundaries. Zakouma is ringed by mud-bricked agricultural communities growing berbere (sorghum). During a visit to Kashkagsa town’s colourful Saturday market, overgrazing is evidently causing environmental degradation. The countryside, by comparison to lusher grazing inside the park’s well-patrolled boundary, is aridly dusty as the dry season bites. African Parks has been strict with nomadic groups to deter them entering the park to graze their cattle.

Leon talks about winning local hearts and minds, yet I wonder if this heavy law-enforcement and grazing restriction plus potential elephant population expansion impacting crops is a recipe for future disquiet? To maintain local goodwill, he counters, African Parks is putting their faith in security, jobs, and education, plus a plan to absorb elephant population growth.

Prior to 2010 the Janjaweed were not only butchering elephants but launching murderous raids on local villages. “Part of the community buy-in has been bringing security to both park and villagers,” says Leon. “The Janjaweed travelled fast on horseback and stole and murdered. We’ve set up radio posts in 18 villages surrounding Zakouma. They know if they radio-in incidences we’ll have a plane in the air in thirty minutes, and a team heading to engage.”

The park is now the region’s biggest employer with some 256 jobs creating a career pathway beyond subsistence agriculture. At their HQ everything is manufactured by locals being taught myriad professional skills. “It’s more economical than shipping everything in. We build everything, from fabricating furniture to hand-sewing park uniforms,” explains Craig Reid, Leon’s deputy. I watch a young guy welding a horse box recycled from a transportation crate. “He came here as a stable assistant to tend the rangers’ horses but wanted to become a welder,” says Craig.

Nearby a group of excited schoolchildren wait to enjoy a safari. The park sponsors their visit to engage them in wildlife and conservation and also funds children’s clubs, women’s groups, and a mobile theatre troupe whose performances feature pro-conservation messages.

“We facilitate around 3000 children per year,” says locally-born Bienvenue Allahrassem, Zakouma’s tourism manager. He began working at the park in 2002 as a waiter before rising through the ranks. “My father worked here from 1986 to 2005 as an EU-employed ranger and talked of its dangers. African Parks has made a big difference to security, schools and jobs.”

Significantly, he adds, local people are comprehending the link between protecting wildlife and economic enhancement, so are less likely to hunt animals straying outside Zakouma’s boundaries.

“Before people used to say the park is ‘just for white people’. Now all Chadians’ are proud of Zakouma and the international reputation it’s gaining,” he expresses.

Qelea murmation on Salamat River. Picture credit Mark Stratton

To date African Parks has funded two secondary schools (with boarding facilities at Goz-Djerat), 14 brick or seiko (hut) primary schools, and a nomads’ tented school for use during their seasonal migration.

“We employ 17 teachers because government teachers have a tendency to arrive late for term, then leave early before the rains,” explains Leon. “If they turn up late, they don’t get paid”. Teachers also use a prescribed environmental education document to aid their teaching whilst African Parks is targeting a 50/50 attendance ratio of girls to boys to up the former’s representation in secondary education. Currently 27 per cent of Ghoz-Djerat’s pupils are girls.

Isn’t interfering in Chad’s education policy overstepping the mark? “I don’t see it like that,” responds Leon. “We’re offering opportunities to young girls who typically leave school and get married by 12 and have kids. Offering them secondary education empowers them to make better-informed decisions about their future.”

Impacting societal development might be deemed controversial for a conservation organisation yet perhaps population growth’s role in human-wildlife conflict is something that increasingly needs to be discussed? “We hope better educated young women will not just see a life of raising children. We cannot just stand by and watch islands of conservation exist between large growths of human population: a pressure that will increase as life expectancy does.”

Birdwatching with Rob Janisch at Rigeuk Wetland. Photo credit Mark Stratton

On pachyderm population growth, African Parks received the assent last year from President Déby to manage the vast 30,693 sq km surrounding Greater Zakouma Functional Ecosystem to mitigate potential elephant human-elephant conflict as the herd potentially expands out. This encompasses the newly-created Siniaka-Minia Reserve, which is greater in extent than Zakouma.

“It’s not an expansion of territory, because Zakouma has always been open to elephants to expand out from,” says Leon. “At present they aren’t leaving the park, but will do as their numbers grow”. Forested wildlife corridors will allow elephant migration into Siniaka and local communities have signed a land-use agreement not to spread into those corridors or fell trees for firewood (now illegal under Chadian law).

“Migratory wildlife like elephants will use the corridors in the wet season when there is surface water in them while at the same time nomadic grazers will have returned north, so we expect no overlap.”

As elephants flourish under Zakouma’s heightened security, African Parks has launched another ambitious project to reintroduce rhinos, extirpated around here by 1972. In May 2018 six black rhinos were translocated here from South Africa’s Maribari National Park to re-establish Africa’s most northerly rhino colony. After initially faring well four of them suddenly died within a short period in October 2018. All, an autopsy showed, experienced a decline in fat around their vital organs so succumbed to secondary conditions like twisted gut and West Nile virus. Yet the circumstances of how this loss of condition occurred remains uncertain and almost unfathomable given the copious browse on offer.

Leon permits me to visit the temporary boma attached to a wider, fenced enclosure where the two surviving rhinos, both females, Bopa and Goose, are being monitored closely and supplementary fed. The skulls of the four that died bleach under the sun outside rhino researcher Kenny Babilon’s tent. At the boma I experience a lifetime’s thrill of petting the rhino’s leathery hides from behind the safety of a fence. Normally, in open habitat, I’d be looking for the nearest tree to shin up!

They seem well fed and healthy. “Yes, just like the four that died,” laments Kenny, an earnest young conservationist from Rwanda. “There seemed nothing to be concerned about. The day before Mouse died she chased me up a tree; normal aggressive behaviour for a healthy rhino.” He blames their demise simply on ‘maladaption’ to their new surroundings, but is convinced the two survivors will form a future sustainable breeding herd.

“We’ll get there,” says Leon during my final visit to his verandah for a cold beer. He tells me they’ll bring in more rhinos around November 2020. With so much achieved at Zakouma I wonder if the rhinos are just a vanity project? Always looking at the bigger picture, Leon says Zakouma has few browsing animals to tackle thorny vegetation like sicklebush that is impenetrable to grazers. “We can sustain a thousand Kordofan giraffes so why not a small herd of rhino? But also, he adds, “Africa needs a few more conservation good news stories.”

As we talk a large bull elephant waits expectantly by the hosepipe for his drink. Given the savagery man had unleashed upon Zakouma’s elephants of his generation, I could scarcely believe that he can be so trusting to be so close to his former vanquishers. The lump on his head, Leon says, is probably an embedded AK47 bullet.

“Oh the stories this old boy could tell,” he says.

In N’djamena Hilton N’djamena is a good bet, with large rooms overlooking the delta area of Lake Chad, with pleasant outdoor dining area plus swimming pool.

Visitors to the park pay a daily $13 (£9.50) national park fee plus a government tourist tax of $2.50 (£1.90) per day. Increasing numbers of African travel specialists are now offering Zakouma.

Getting there
Fly to N’djamena on Ethiopian Airlines from London Heathrow via Addis Ababa or with Air France from Paris. Inside Chad, you can get to Zakouma either by flight or overland 4WD. The 860km road journey from N’djamena takes 12-14 hours and a 4WD vehicle is necessary. A speedier option is via an air-charter service taking two hours, typically on Mondays.

The basic fee is £150; secure it in advance. Visitors must present a yellow fever certificate on arrival.

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The Phoenix has risen – Travel Africa Magazine