An Elephantine Tragedy

September 6, 2006

During an aerial survey to assess levels of poaching in Chad’s wet season, WCS conservationist Mike Fay found that elephants who went in search of forage outside Zakouma National Park paid the exit fee with their lives.

Most were missing only their tusks—a sure sign that the massacre was the work of poachers. The 100 slain elephants were found in five sites on the forest floor near Chad’s Zakouma National Park. This 1,900-square-mile protected area was once renowned as a haven for elephants and other wildlife species.

Mike Fay, a WCS field scientist best known for his Megatransect hike across central Africa, led the team that discovered the massacre during an aerial survey conducted August 3–11. A National Geographic explorer-in-residence, the conservationist was also on assignment for National Geographic magazine. Fay’s fellow surveyors included officials of the Chadian government and the European Union project CURESS. The team determined that all the elephants had been killed since the end of May 2006, and more than half had been slaughtered in the days just before they were found. At one of the killing sites Fay observed a camp with six horses and five men, who quickly packed up as the plane flew over. At another site, a poacher on horseback shot at the plane with an assault rifle. No one was hurt.

“Zakouma elephants are getting massacred right before our eyes,” Fay said. “We hadn’t been in the air more than two hours when we saw our first carcass…not far from the park headquarters.”

Until the 1970s, the Texas-size region of central Africa that incorporates Zakouma National Park in southeastern Chad was one of the continent’s most intact wilderness areas. Since then, the region’s population of 300,000 elephants has dwindled to perhaps 10,000. While funding from the EU and strong protection from the Chadian government have preserved Zakouma as one of the last bastions of wildlife in central Africa, its outlying areas are no longer secure. Elephants that cross park borders to find forage during the wet season are prone to poachers in the black-market ivory trade and rebels who operate in nearby Darfur. The August survey, partly funded by National Geographic, was commissioned to assess the level of poaching during the wet season.

In response to Fay’s reports of the massacres, Chadian and EU authorities are enacting an emergency plan to save Zakouma’s elephants. The officials will increase aerial surveys and extend patrols outside the park through the wet season that ends in late September. Contributions from the African Parks Foundation and others have made these initial efforts possible. In the coming years, the officials hope to raise funds and awareness so that they can control poaching through aerial patrols, increased ground security, and information gathering.

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