In a week of wildlife conservation announcements coming out of New York, including CGI’s commitment to spend $80 million fighting elephant poaching, and the merge between Rare and The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit organization African Parks (AP) added its news to the mix: African Parks is partnering with the government of Chad to launch the first national program to combat elephant poaching in central Africa.
This is no minor undertaking. The country of Chad has been absolutely ravaged by the illegal trade in ivory.
At an event this week at The River Club in Manhattan, hosted by African Parks, Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno said his country “has been struck more openly and severely by this new poaching wave than the other countries in the Sub region.”
According to AP, 50 years ago Chad was teeming with 50,000 elephants; today the number is down to 1,200.
And inside its Zakouma National Park, which National Geographic once referred to as “a refuge” for elephants, the loss is equally staggering. In 2005, Zakouma was a cradle for some 4,000 elephants; this year, the number stands at roughly 450.
African Parks was founded in 2003, and has a distinctive mission within the crowded galaxy of wildlife conservation groups.
Armed with its motto “A Business Approach to Conservation,” its goal—in partnership with governments—is to successfully and fully operate a country’s national park.
This means AP is in charge of everything: the park’s finances, its security, infrastructure, tourism components, roads, law enforcement.
AP also intends to supervise each park for no less than 20 years (“We are accountable” for our actions, says CEO Peter Fearnhead).
Currently AP operates in six African nations and manages seven national parks, including Garamba National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo, Akagera National Park in Rwanda, and Chad’s Zakouma.
Not One Elephant Killed in Zakouma: How So?
AP took over Zakouma in 2010. After months of poaching under its initial watch, it seems that stability has taken hold: “For the last two years,” Fearnhead says, “not a single elephant has been killed within Zakouma National Park.”
AP attributes this success to a multifaceted strategy. First, the organization put satellite collars on 15 sub-herd elephants that automatically provide location information every four to eight hours. This information is fed into a central control center that can send out anti-poaching patrols to shadow the herds. Two aircraft conduct aerial surveys on a daily basis and nine extra airstrips were built to bolster the efforts.
Furthermore, AP has installed a network of telephones in surrounding villages so that anyone can call toll free in the event of any hostility toward not just elephants but also people.
The organization has also provided rangers with horses and weaponry.
Lastly, AP has formed a rapid response team that can react immediately to a threat.
Fearnhead says that that for the very first time in five years, baby elephants are now being sighted within Zakouma’s herd—a clear sign of success.
Although the public announcement of the national program came this week, the initiative to focus on the whole of Chad began this spring.
It started with arguably the most obvious action: a nationwide count of elephants. In addition to the 450 counted inside Zakouma, AP located another 450-600 individuals outside the park.
Some of these herds are as large as 150, others as small as six, and at least one elephant in each herd has been collared with a GPS device.
Location information is fed into the newly established National Elephant Monitoring Center based in the capital city of Ndjamena. This, Fearnhead says, means “we are able to constantly follow the movements of each herd. These satellite signals not only give the positions of the elephants but will alert us if one of the collared elephants stops moving.”
The Chadian government has committed 350 rangers to explicitly protect these remaining elephant herds.
It’s unclear at this time how successful the new initiative will be in stopping the country’s poaching epidemic. But President Idriss Deby ended his speech on Tuesday night by proclaiming that “you can count on my personal engagement and my willingness to make sure that the preservation of the environment will be one of the most important areas of work in the future in central Africa and particularly in Chad.”