The dark days of Chad’s Zakouma National Park saw its wildlife poached to near extinction, but now the animals are returning, its reputation is on the up. Mark Stratton investigates for Wanderlust...
Squatting on park manager Leon Lamprecht’s veranda, I’d never been so close to a wild elephant. The large bull’s breath was hot like the ambient Sahelian air; the wrinkled creases of his trunk engraved like a mighty oak.
Without taking his eyes off me, he inverted his trunk to receive the clean, cold water I was hosing into it from an outside tap. When full, he would coil the trunk to his mouth and syphon the water down his throat, gurgling like a plug being pulled from a swimming pool, liquefied mud trickling down the runnels of his hide.
“He’s an old boy,” said Leon, in his baritone Afrikaans accent. “The stories he could tell about what he’s been through...”
Elephants drink from Leon’s tap every day, yet a decade before, they were being slaughtered here for their ivory. As civil war raged in northern Chad, troops guarding the eastern border with Sudan were diverted to capital N’Djamena.
This opened the border to the Sudanese Janjaweed militia, who, fresh from committing atrocities in Western Darfur in the mid-2000s, now flooded across the border and plundered Zakouma. In the decade prior to 2010, 90% of Zakouma’s elephants had been slaughtered, dropping from around 4,000 to a little over 400.
The survivors stopped breeding and any infants were trampled to death in stampedes as the poachers pursued them,” said Leon, who runs the 3,049 sq km Zakouma National Park. “They would’ve been annihilated had we not turned up,” he added, referring to the 2010 arrival of African Parks, a non-profit conservation organisation from South Africa who manage parks across the continent.
I’d been picking up a buzz about Zakouma from the few people who’d ventured to this remote park, hearing that its diversity and abundance is one of the best in Africa. Besides wanting to see the miracle of its elephant resurrection, I was excited to explore what could be the finest national park in northern Africa. In the meantime I had a thirsty pachyderm to deal with.
Leon’s tank finally drained empty. The old bull gave me a pained look and pleadingly waved its upturned trunk just inches from my nose. He then turned reluctantly and lumbered back to a pan to larrup chocolate-fondant gooey mud all over his skin.
The truth of Zakouma’s resurrection was swiftly apparent. If seeing genets, civets, honey badgers and serval on a single night drive was barely credible, then add lions galore, newborn cheetah cubs and clouds of birds that almost blotted out the daylight.
After assuming total management of Zakouma with the blessing of Chad’s government, African Parks set about beefing up security with anti- poaching patrols. Consequently, the last elephant poached here was in early 2016, and with security now restored, tourism has returned during the dry season (November to May).
Zakouma can be driven to in about 14 hours from N’Djamena, but I took a 12-seater Cessna instead; the flight should have taken two hours but we were delayed at N’Djamena Airport’s as we waited for President Idriss Déby’s plane to take off.
Eventually, the Great Zakouma Ecosystem revealed itself below as a mosaic of savannah and spiny evergreen forests dissected by the snaking Salamat river.
Two options for accommodation exist within Zakouma, suiting very different budgets. During my week there I paid for four nights at the excellent-value Tinga Camp, while a pricier option is Camp Nomade, where I spent my first three nights.
Camp Nomade is a secluded camp of just eight tents located alongside the Riguek wetland. Here, weeks are allocated to some of Africa’s finest wildlife guides. I went in with Rob Janisch, a South African guide of 20 years.
Now Zimbabwe-based, he’d once run a camp in Mozambique, and when not mimicking a prodigious array of birdcalls, he was lightheartedly impersonating the Welsh accent of a birding couple from Carmarthen.
My first inkling of Zakouma’s stardust materialised during Rob’s ‘20-minute’ transfer from the airstrip to Camp Nomade, which actually took two absorbing hours of being introduced to the subtle variations between Chad’s wildlife and those of the southern hemisphere.
There were Kordofan giraffes – an endangered subspecies with a thicker white mortar between their irregular chestnut patches than the southern giraffe species – that galloped like slow-motion rocking horses.
Zakouma possesses around half the remaining global population. Then we encountered large herds of Central African savannah buffalo, smaller than their southern African cousins and possessing a pinkish pigmentation.
They are another comeback kid, now numbering over 10,000 after falling to a few hundred by the mid-1980s.
“They behave differently to southern Cape buffaloes, who stare you down and charge,” said Rob. “These guys are passive and just retreat into the bush.”
We ended the morning at a water pan where the shore was black with hundreds of spur-winged geese. “That’s phenomenal,” said Rob. “If you see a dozen together, you’ve done well.”
Lunch waited at Camp Nomade, served at a communal table under an open-sided nomadic tent and eaten while watching the ebb and flow of water birds and listening to the honking of golden-crested cranes.
My own roomy bush tent was tucked into a thicket exposed to whatever might wander by, like a lioness an Australian guest spotted one night in her en-suite outdoors bathroom, presumably not investigating her rustic bucket shower.
From Riguek one sunset, we walked along the shallow lagoon’s shoreline for a sundowner cocktail to watch the greatest bird murmuration I’ve seen.
Quelea may be archetypal LBJs (‘little brown jobs’, as birders say) but they shapeshift in their tens of thousands come sundown, soaring in unison and skimming the water like spiralling dust devils before dividing into sine waves and coalescing once more, the reverberation of their wings sounding like a tide rasping pebbles.
“They dip their wings to gather moisture to drink for the night,” explained Rob.
There was still time thereafter for a captivating night safari, and time for Zakouma’s nocturnes to run me ragged.
I was about to snap a civet one evening when two honey badgers distracted me and I missed both.
Later, I saw a pale fox – a little jug-eared critter with a chihuahua face – that Rob described as his holy grail of mammal sightings. Yet there was one thing I craved seeing even more.
Zakouma’s elephants dominated my attention, and a privilege of staying at Camp Nomade was to join park operations manager Rob Reid on his daily patrol flight in his tiny four-seater Cessna 182. We rose quickly from the HQ airstrip on the hot thermals and immediately buzzed low enough to spy an ostrich squatting on a huge savannah nest.
The park was parched yet 80% of it lies underwater during wet season, said Rob, explaining that the animals all have to wade to higher ground.
“What makes Zakouma interesting is the rains completely change the animals’ normal territoriality, as they lose their dry-season territory then have to compete for it again when the floods subside,” he explained.
The main elephant herd was 20km to Zakouma’s south. Some were ensconced in spiny red acacia stands, where they once fled for perceived safety during the ravages of poaching, yet now they are relaxed and once again bearing many young.
“Last official count was 516, but we reckon we’ll have around 560 to 590 by the year’s end,” added Rob.
We touched back down at HQ and I was shown Zakouma’s state-of-the-art operations room. Outside the once were portraits of rangers killed while protecting the herd.
The Mamba anti-poaching teams number 122 men in total; they are recruited from local villages to patrol on foot, horseback or in vehicles mounted with high-calibre machine guns. Intel on poachers is provided by VHF radio outposts in villages surrounding Zakouma while the herd is tracked via satellite collars.
“We employ a carrot and stick approach,” said Leon, as I called by his house to water his elephants. “Incentives outside the park, arrests inside. We believe conservation is the best form of sustainable land use for local communities.”
Besides providing 250 jobs for local staff, he listed an impressive commitment to community development. They’ve built 14 primary schools and two secondary ones, where they aim to target a 50% attendance rate for girls, many of whom traditionally finish education and are married at around 12. While I was at HQ, a safari vehicle of children was being taken on a free game drive.
“Every Chadian you meet is proud of Zakouma and relieved to no longer be terrorised by the Janjaweed,” explained Leon.
For all African Parks’ success in reviving the elephant herd, finding it on the ground proved devilishly hard. After two nights at Camp Nomade, we followed the meandering Salamat south to seek them out.
The river is lined by lush riverine forest teeming with olive baboons. In dry season it fragments into shrunken green pools wriggling with carp; so much so that at one river bend I saw the astounding spectacle of some 5,000 pelicans filling their bulging crops in unison, watched by hundreds of slightly creepy marabou storks while at least 50 fish eagles squabbled over the carp like seagulls fighting over a bag of chips.
Other river predators also lurked nearby. We fly-camped that night alongside the Salamat and my headtorch picked out the eyes of dozens of Nile crocodiles. Locals say they only eat fish, yet I wasn’t going anywhere near the riverbank as I didn’t buy this pescatarian reincarnation.
Assisting our elephant search was a sub-team of the park’s Mamba anti-poaching unit, which went by the name of Phantom. Intimidating and cool in equal measures, their commander, Daoud, came out of the bush to meet us in military fatigues and with a German-made sniper rifle slung across his chest. His six-man team were tailing the elephants and carried all their provisions.
“We caught a fish poacher last week but haven’t engaged the Janjaweed for nearly four years. We’re always wary, though,” said Daoud.
He’d arrived in Zakouma from the Chadian army in 2003. “In 2006 my commander was killed alongside me in a gunfight. They were bad days, but now Zakouma is very peaceful.”
Still the herd remained elusive, and sightings were limited to explosive flurries of action. On one occasion several bachelor bulls careened through the bush; on another a small female sub-group noisily protected a very tiny calf. I noticed they had very short tusks and asked Rob about it
“The big tuskers were poached first, so the shorter-tusked breeding bulls are passing on their genes; it’s a sort of adaptation,” he ruefully explained.
Thereafter, I migrated to Tinga Camp where the circular cement huts are a little airless but the surrounding wildlife is outstanding. I encountered a conveyor belt of monkeys, gazelles and warthogs, while blocking my door one night was the substantial derriere of Tinga’s very own bad-boy elephant.
“I’m sorry about there being no water,” said Claire, the camp manager, one morning, “but the elephant has broken the waterpipe in order to drink from it, so no showers.”
Just outside the camp, a pride of lions had hunted relentlessly and growled all night long. So, from Tinga I made an engaging, if bleary-eyed, excursion to the Kashkasha village’s Saturday market, just outside the park.
It was a bustling affair, with stalls selling a few intricate artisan crafts, such as ceremonial daggers, amid the smoky aromas of grilling fatty goat in a dust bowl of a town. The braying and groaning of the livestock market mingled with impassioned readings of the Koran delivered by a mendicant preacher on a pick-up truck.
Another local preacher had been on hand last May to bless the most ambitious arrival to Zakouma since African Parks assumed its management. Six black rhinos had been translocated here from South Africa on a Russian Antonov jet to repopulate Zakouma.
They would be the first black rhinos in the park since 1972, when poaching eliminated the population here. Yet, by October, four had died within two weeks of each other, emphasising just what life-and-death battles the park faces.
With Leon Lamprecht’s permission, I got a lift to rhino researcher Kenny Babilon’s bush tent in the evening. Kenny is something of a bushman; for stealth, so as not to disturb the rhino, he often removes his shoes to walk barefoot across the thorns. It’s from here that he monitors the rhino reintroduction programme, living in a riverside tent with his girlfriend.
Around his camp were the four skulls of the rhinos that had perished. A painful reminder of the fate of the beasts that he calls “my babies”, even though he confessed that they’d chased him up trees on many occasions.
“Stay here! They need to get used to your scent,” he said, after the two surviving females, Bopa and Goose, had come into a temporary enclosure (boma) to gorge on supplementary bean hay, provided to maintain their condition.
Eventually, I joined him and, with a low fence for protection, tickled their leathery heads. Kenny even planted a kiss on Goose. It was a tremendous thrill to be so close to these notoriously truculent colossi.
They looked so healthy, so why did the others die with so much to graze on around them, I asked Kenny as he looked over his “babies”?
“It was purely maladaptation. They ate and ate and seemed as happy as Larry. I didn’t expect their deaths because they looked fat, but it was ultimately survival of the fittest.”
He explained that the rhino devoured a lot of rich grass when they arrived; when dry season eventually came, they carried on eating the grass despite its loss of nutritional value. “Rhinos can be a bit stupid,” Kenny sighed.
Somehow it caused them to lose fat around their vital organs and left them prone to the secondary complaints that ultimately killed them. Yet he believed these two ‘survivors’ would form the basis of a breeding herd one day, and told me that more rhinos are likely to be reintroduced in 2020, if Bopa and Goose continue to thrive.
Euphoric at the encounter, I drove back to Tinga with Stephen, now relishing his life as a driver-guide after long struggling to find work. In the headlights we spotted a smallish mammal.
We followed it into the bush but Stephen was uncertain what it was. Scrolling my photographs revealed it was striped like a tiger. It was a rare striped hyena, never photographed inside the park before.
Every spiny avenue through Zakouma’s evergreen scrub, every shimmering water pan and every pelican-choked river bend bore a cornucopian abundancy like I’d never experienced before on a safari.
The miracle of Zakouma, its Lazarus-like resurrection, has been a decade in the making; now, after years of hardship, it has established itself as one of Africa’s greatest wildlife destinations.
The author travelled independently. To visit Zakouma National Park, you need to reserve one of a few accommodation options, for which safaris are included.
Double chalets at Tinga Camp cost from US$156 (£120) per person per night and include twice-daily safaris and all meals. To make a reservation, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, visit African Parks.
The park’s Camp Nomade. is also all-inclusive of meals, guides and safaris but is pricier. Its eight tents are booked for weeklong slots with specific guides over a 16-week period (mid-Dec– mid-Apr).
My guide, the excellent Rob Janisch, has slots available in 2020 from USD$15,000pp (£11,833) for nine nights (seven at Camp Nomade; two in N’Djamena); contact him on +263 779 926448 or via Into The Wild for dates. All profits from the camp go to the park.
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