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.
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...