During the coming months National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence J. Michael Fay will report from central African countries that have elephants—Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Kenya, and possibly Democratic Republic of Congo. He’ll be working on elephant conservation measures, now needed more urgently than ever in the face of the current poaching crisis. Not only are elephants dying, but people too.
Chad: September 2012. Zakaria Ibrahim, Brahim Khamis, Daoud Aldjouma, Djibrine Adoum Goudja, and Idriss Adoum—all dead, gunned down during dawn prayers. Where? North of Zakouma National Park in Chad, central Africa. When? September 3, 2012. Why? They were assassinated for protecting the last of the elephant herds found in the vast stretches between the Sahara Desert and the Congo forest.
Something is seriously wrong with that.
When I first helped survey Zakouma National Park in 2005, we counted 3,885 elephants. In 2006 we counted 3,020, and the alarm bells were sounded. In 2009 the number was down to 617. Today there are 457 elephants in Zakouma.
Only a few dozen medium-size bulls remain, and two babies. The rest are females who for the past eight years have been running for their lives, pursued by men killing them for their tiny tusks. Now the hunted are the guards who protect elephants. With the price of ivory gone vertical, and an almost limitless demand, it would seem that the intent of those doing the killing is to kill until the elephants are gone. These guards are in the way.
If history is any indicator, the poachers will not stop when the elephants are gone. Just as these men turned their focus to elephants once the black rhinos were gone, they will turn to every other species, including humans, as sources of revenue through banditry, armed hold-ups, and worse.
A sixth ranger, Hassan Djibrine, has not yet been found since the attack, and the camp cook, with a gun shot wound, walked two days to Fodjo, the nearest village, to report the massacre. The team was based about 60 miles north of the park in a place identified in 2006 when Annie, a satellite-tracked elephant in Zakouma, was killed near a swamp frequented by large herds in the wet season.
This year a security presence was established near the swamp. African Parks, which manages Zakouma with the government of Chad, believes that the slaying of these guards was a revenge attack for an incident on August 12, when the team raided a poacher’s camp after gunshots were heard and the carcasses of two elephants discovered. Two elephant tusks, telecommunications equipment, and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition were confiscated during the raid. But the poachers escaped.
Think of the horror. Elephants are among the most protective of their families of any species. Babies are cherished and guarded by all in a group. In the past seven years, every individual elephant alive in Zakouma today has witnessed eight family members get shot. Mothers have abandoned or lost their young, their only defense being to run for their lives at every crack of a gun. All this horror so a human being somewhere can satisfy the desire for ivory.
What is disheartening is that between the 2011 and 2012 surveys in Zakouma, the number of elephants remained stable because of increased pressure by the Chadian government and NGO partners banding with local people to halt the poaching. The thought was that maybe the Zakouma elephants had seen a turning point. Maybe these poor animals would get a reprieve after watching their families slaughtered, their faces hacked off.
The worry now is that the dry season is coming, when elephants are most exposed. Zakouma could be targeted just as Bouba-Ndjida park was during last year’s dry season, when that herd of 400 elephants was decimated.
Just over a century ago a man named William Stamps Cherry traveled in the vicinity of the Oubangui River, south of Zakouma. He was the first white man in this area, which at the time was being ravaged by Sultan Senoussi for slaves and ivory. Cherry said of the elephants: “There is no way of estimating the number of elephants in the interior. It may be five hundred thousand. It may be a million. I think more likely millions.”
In the early 1970s there were still well over 100,000 elephants in this area. During the last great frenzy for ivory, in the late 70s and early 80s, we lost most of them. When the ivory ban came into effect in 1990, more than 90 percent had been slaughtered.
Today in the entire region, the size of Texas, there are fewer than 3,000 elephants concentrated in two parks: Zakouma and Garamba, possibly less than one percent of the population in Cherry’s time.
During the past three decades we have watched elephants extirpated in giant swaths of territory. The populations in the savannas of South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Democratic Republic of Congo have been relentlessly hunted. They now occupy maybe 3 percent of the range they had in 1960, not because of local human need for land but because of a greedy few trading ivory illegally.
Elephants all over the continent are having a tough time. Garamba is challenged by the Lord’s Resistance Army and hunting from helicopters.
We’re seeing active poaching in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and all of the forest countries, especially Congo and Gabon, which have the mother lode of forest elephants.
Some would argue that we need to kill the demand. Well, a friend of mine has said, “In China if you somehow managed to convince 99.9 percent of the population not to buy ivory, that 0.1 percent who remain unconvinced represents 1.3 million people still wanting to buy ivory.” That’s three times more people than there are elephants left in Africa.
There is no doubt that we’re going to have to step up protections for elephants, top to bottom, and fast. Lest the guards of Zakouma died in vain.