Mike Fay, a WCS conservationist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and his team discovered five separate elephant massacre sites totaling 100 individuals during a survey made Aug. 3-11 from their small plane. Fay also was on assignment for National Geographic magazine. All the elephants were killed since the end of May 2006, more than 50 of them 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.
"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. It was fresh, maybe just a few weeks old, not far from the park headquarters, and the animal's face had been chopped off, the tusks removed.
"Two days later we were flying west of that area when we saw a poachers' camp. The second time we passed over I saw a guy and a horse and an assault rifle in the poacher's hands. The third time we flew over, this time only about 150 feet above the camp, I could see the man shooting at us." No one was hurt.
Zakouma National Park in southeastern Chad makes up part of a Texas-sized region of central Africa that until the 1970s was one of the continent's most intact wilderness areas, abundant in wildlife. The general region was home 30 years ago to some 300,000 elephants, a number that has dwindled to perhaps 10,000 today. Encompassing nearly 1,900 square miles, Zakouma is now one of the last bastions of wildlife in all of central Africa, thanks to funding from the EU.
Fay led a survey team also commissioned by the Chadian government and CURESS in 2005 that counted 3,885 elephants in Zakouma Park. A year later they could find only 3,020. It was not known whether the drop reflected a loss of elephants or the possibility that a large herd was missed in the second count. The latest survey, partly funded by National Geographic, was commissioned to assess the level of poaching during the wet season, when the elephants wander outside park limits to forage and are vulnerable to attack.
Elephants in the park have enjoyed strong protection from the Chadian government and the EU, but the large percentage that leaves the park during the wet season has not been as well protected. All hunting of elephants in Chad is illegal, and the sale of ivory has been banned since 1989, though black-market trade is increasing. Zakouma is only about 150 miles west of the conflict area of Darfur and is in the path of recent rebel activity in Chad, thus security is low and borders are porous in this isolated region.
Fay took information of the massacres to Chadian and EU officials, who are enacting an emergency plan with contributions from the African Parks Foundation and others, which will increase aerial surveys and extend patrols outside the park through the wet season that ends in late September. They hope to raise funds and awareness to control poaching in coming years with aerial patrols as well as to significantly increase ground security and information gathering.