Described as one of the last strongholds of Central African wildlife, Zakouma National Park in Chad is renowned for its free-roaming herds of elephants. Despite its history of terrible poaching, there has been only one incident inside the park since 2011 and elephant numbers are on the rise. This is largely due to the work of African Parks, which took over the running of the park in 2010. Their anti-poaching efforts have rendered Zakouma a conservation success story. Rian Labuschagne, African Parks Manager at Zakouma National Park spoke to Rose Gamble
What brought you to the role of African Parks Manager?
I was born and raised in Malawi. I joined SANParks in the early eighties. Later, I was seconded to the Malawi wildlife department and, in 1995, moved to Ngorongoro, Tanzania, to work on black rhino. I started Grumeti Reserves in 2002 in western Serengeti. Five years ago, African Parks partnered with Chad to manage Zakouma and I jumped at the offer to be park manager in a completely new environment.
Describe your average working day.
Because of the heat, we start work at six with a parade, which all the staff attend. The law enforcement team then meets to look at the latest satellite collar downloads of elephant movements and to plan the security staff placements for the day. In the afternoon I will do a surveillance flight with law enforcement staff to check on the elephants or airdrop fresh radio batteries to a patrol in the field. I also do a boundary patrol, if necessary.
What was Zakouma like, back in 2010, when African Parks first became involved in the park?
The park had minimum management and financial problems. Staff morale was low and, in the previous wet season, eighty elephants had been lost.
What has been the secret to your success in preventing poaching in the park?
Success did not come from one factor alone but a combination of actions. One of the most important was building an all-weather airstrip which enabled management to stay in the park throughout the year.
What – practically – did you put in place in terms of anti-poaching measures and patrols?
We fitted satellite collars onto a selection of elephants enabling four-hourly readings on their positions. We installed an extensive VHF digital radio communication system covering the key areas of operation and a 24/7 control room, from where all anti-poaching activities are monitored. We also re-equipped our field staff, built stables for our patrol horses and trained three special reaction teams.
You sadly lost two female elephants to poachers on the 28 August of this year. Can you describe what happened? Have you changed anything in response to this incident?
After three years of no known poaching, the incident confirmed our fears of a small team infiltrating and poaching on a scale that’s difficult to detect. The area where the elephants were killed is in the west of the park, cut off from Zakouma HQ by rivers and wetlands. The poachers managed to cut the ivory off one elephant. Two calves were left behind who both subsequently died. Plans have been made to establish more airstrips and construct a temporary base in this area during the next wet season.
Can you explain what community-endorsed conservation is?
People are part of ecosystems and live within conservation areas. It is important to raise awareness and to encourage these communities to take responsible ownership of their parks and to understand and respect the conservation actions taking place around them. In Zakouma we have established ‘elephant schools’, we hope they will help explain and encourage conservation among the local communities.
Poaching is rife across Africa, what in your opinion fuels the ivory trade and what do you see as the greatest hope for preventing poaching?
It is the end users of ivory who set the poaching chain in motion. The poacher, who risks his life for little reward, is being driven by poverty. Without the demand, the killing would subside.
With no history of a safari industry, Chad isn’t the first place that comes to mind when booking a holiday. What would you say were the key reasons to visit the park?
It’s a new destination and a real wilderness with no fences or boundaries. Because it is off the beaten track you have it to yourself. In the dry season there are big concentrations of wildlife and birds and the park is surrounded by nomadic people and small, colourful villages which add a unique cultural experience.
Along with elephants, what other animals would we see?
Herds of up to a thousand Central African savannah buffalo, Kordofan giraffe (the park holds 50 percent of the remaining 2000 left in the wild), black-crowned cranes, roan antelope, Lelwel hartebeest and the threatened red-fronted gazelle. Lions are abundant and leopards are seen more and more. Night drives reveal serval cat, civet, African wild cat, hyena and the pale fox.
Where should we stay in Zakouma?
Tinga Camp or the newly opened Camp Nomade.
Do you see Zakouma becoming a recognised safari destination?
Yes, but only for the dedicated traveller who is willing to go down the untravelled route to experience something unique and truly wild.
What do you see happening over the next five years within the park?
We aim to build the elephant herds from 470 to 700 and beyond. We’re also hoping to reintroduce black rhino to Zakouma.