Who would have thought that just south of the Sa­hara Desert in a re­mote corner of the Re­pub­lic of Chad, would ex­ist one of the most in­spi­ra­tional con­ser­va­tion suc­cess sto­ries to come out of Africa? Kings­ley Holgate tells the story.

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

Africa’s most fa­mous ad­ven­turer A mirac­u­lous story

Greet­ings from the Re­pub­lic of Chad where, with ex­pe­di­tion mem­ber Brad Hansen, we’ve been do­ing great com­mu­nity work as guests of GeoEx and Zakouma Na­tional Park. In the past, the fa­mous ele­phant herds of Zakouma were hor­ri­bly dec­i­mated by Jan­jaweed rebels (‘devils on horse­back’) from Dar­fur in Su­dan. Now, thanks to po­lit­i­cal will from the pres­i­dent of Chad, ded­i­cated man­age­ment and tough, no-non­sense anti-poach­ing mea­sures, the ele­phant are breed­ing again and their num­bers in­creas­ing. It is also thanks to the work that they do in the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties that we’re able to in­clude Zakouma in our malaria re­search and Ele­phant Art con­ser­va­tion ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme.

Fiercely hot and with lion close to camp ev­ery night, Zakouma is a con­ser­va­tion mir­a­cle. We’ve trav­elled to the far cor­ners of Africa but I’ve never seen any­thing like this be­fore: it re­ally is some­thing out of ‘old Africa’. From the en­trance of my tent, I look across a pan and in one glance, see hun­dreds of tiang, Lel­wel har­te­beest, De­fassa wa­ter­buck, a small herd of roan an­te­lope and en­dan­gered Kord­o­fan gi­raffe and, against the tree-line, what ap­pears to be over 1 000 Cen­tral African sa­van­nah buf­falo.

It’s not just about the mam­mals. The Great Rift Val­ley lakes of East Africa may lay claim to host­ing ‘the greatest bird show on Earth’ but Zakouma – with its thousands of spur-winged geese, grey and black crowned cranes, pel­i­cans, Abyssinian ground horn­bills, Marabou storks strut­ting around like un­der­tak­ers, and birds of prey that at this time of year, dive into the swoop­ing char­coal-coloured clouds of mil­lions of red-billed que­lea – is a bird­ers’ par­adise (398 recorded species to be ex­act). But the real story to come out of Zakouma is the tragedy of its fa­mous ele­phant. Tens of thousands once lived in this 3 800 square kilo­me­tre re­serve, but for cen­turies it was the nearest place Sudanese horse­men could find ivory, much cov­eted by Arab traders along the

Nile. Orig­i­nally they hunted with spears and swords, but modern AK-47 as­sault ri­fles al­lowed killing on an in­dus­trial scale. Zakouma lost 90% of the 22 000 ele­phant it had in the mid-1970s, then war with Libya and the up­surge in de­mand for ivory re­duced the pop­u­la­tion to 4 300 by the early 2000s, and the chaos of civil war cut that to fewer than 500 by 2010. Then came African Parks – the South African-based con­ser­va­tion NGO which spe­cialises in the pro­fes­sional man­age­ment of wildlife parks around Africa – and the tide turned.

It hasn’t been easy though. At Zakouma’s HQ, park man­ager Leon Lam­precht shows us the con­trol room and ar­moury, these guys mean busi­ness. But on the walls are 13 framed pho­to­graphs of Zakouma rangers who were killed by Jan­jaweed rebel poach­ers, some shot while they were at morn­ing prayers. It’s a som­bre re­minder of how tough the early years were.

And so we go in search of the fa­mous ele­phant herds. It’s the ‘sui­cide sea­son’ with tem­per­a­tures in the upper 40s. Soon the rains will come. The con­trol room gives us the GPS co-or­di­nates and ra­dios ahead to one of the aptly named, heavily armed and well-trained Mamba anti-poach­ing units who guard the herds 24/7. We find them un­der a massive wild fig tree at the edge of a game-filled pan. Their camp is a sim­ple af­fair: a small fire with black­ened ket­tle and enamel mugs for sweet black tea, a grass sleep­ing mat for each ranger and their gris-gris belts (pro­tec­tion amulets) hang­ing from the branches, ready to be strapped on when pa­trol time comes.

On foot, we qui­etly fol­low the Mam­bas into thick bush and come across an ele­phant herd, at least 200 strong with tiny calves at foot. Later – af­ter we’d flushed some lions from un­der a sausage tree – there’s an­other group out on the pan, drink­ing and splash­ing. It looks so idyl­lic but some of the el­lies have torn, ragged ears from rac­ing for their lives through the thorn scrub to es­cape the Jan­jaweed. Many have AK-47 bul­lets still em­bed­ded in their bod­ies. That evening, down on the Sala­mat River, back­lit in the Har­mat­tan dust, there’s an­other anx­ious breed­ing herd; mem­o­ries of the years of poach­ing atroc­i­ties are still fresh in the ma­tri­archs’ minds and they race for the safety of the forest.

We ‘fly-camp’ next to a pool on the Sala­mat, where by the light of Brad’s torch, we count over 100 sets of croc­o­dile eyes. Through­out the night, there’s the sound of a fish-feed­ing frenzy and, in the morn­ing, the growl­ing burp-sounds of dom­i­nant male crocs pro­tect­ing their turf. Across the pool, like bul­let-holes in the clay around a croc­o­dile cave, is a ver­i­ta­ble mud-built cas­tle of wings and colours; a colony of hun­dreds of north­ern carmine bee-eaters. In the dis­tance, ba­boons give the alarm call: the lion are back.

Be­fore leav­ing this in­cred­i­ble park, there’s one last bit of good news. Six black rhino are soon to ar­rive at Zakouma from South Africa. Poached to ex­tinc­tion over 20 years ago, their rein­tro­duc­tion is a hugely im­por­tant oc­ca­sion and Zakouma is go­ing all-out to gain the sup­port of their com­mu­nity neigh­bours. An en­ter­tain­ing the­atri­cal group is go­ing from vil­lage to vil­lage spread­ing the mes­sage that the new rhino will be de­horned and will have no value to poach­ers, and the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties have cho­sen new Ara­bic-French names for their rhino, names like Mara Al-Pula De Zakouma (first lady of Zakouma) and Hil­mal Watane (hap­pi­ness of the na­tion).

We spent a cou­ple of days with African Parks, launch­ing the Land Rover­sup­ported Rhino Art con­ser­va­tion ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme for chil­dren. It went so well that six of the artis­tic pieces have been en­larged and will be at­tached to the rhi­nos’ trav­el­ling crates. Their mes­sages con­vey the ex­cite­ment of the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties await­ing their ar­rival. I’m sure that with the tough anti-poach­ing mea­sures al­ready in place, to­gether with com­mu­nity buy-in, the fu­ture rhino of Chad – the only black rhino north of the rain­forests and west of the Sa­hara – will have an ex­cel­lent chance of sur­vival.

Left: The Land Rover­sup­ported Rhino Art ed­u­ca­tional pro­gramme is help­ing to en­cour­age com­mu­nity buy-in for the ex­cit­ing rein­tro­duc­tion of black rhino to Zakouma Na­tional Park in Chad. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: Many of Zakouma’s fa­mous...

Kings­ley Holgate is South Africa’s most fa­mous ad­ven­turer, a renowned hu­man­i­tar­ian and author. The 71-year-old founded the Kings­ley Holgate Foun­da­tion, which aims to “save and im­prove lives through ad­ven­ture”. He has handed out thousands of mos­quito...

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