Conservation is war: Inside the battle to save Africa's elephants

Story highlights

  • 96 elephants are killed each day in Africa, according to one estimate
  • Conservationists at Zakouma National Park are trying to reverse that trend
  • Rangers at the park in Chad say they're ready to die to protect their elephants

Zakouma, Chad (CNN)"Conservation is war," they say, and nowhere is that clearer than in Zakouma National Park.

Every day, in this remote wildlife refuge in the Salamat region of southeastern Chad, park rangers risk their lives to protect elephants that have managed to survive the poaching massacres of the last decade.
    In the rising morning heat, birdcalls are interrupted by shots ringing out in the bush. It's an elite group of park rangers training on a firing range to sharpen their combat skills.
    Dressed in bush-colored camouflage and with traditional cloth wrapped around their heads for protection against the sun and sand, some two dozen rangers are getting specialized instruction in battling poachers.
    They're the Mamba team, the park's own rapid response unit.

    Ready, aim, fire

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    "Formation! Prepare yourselves! Fire!" shouts Patrick Duboscq, a retired French police officer instructing the Zakouma rangers.
    A handful of men throw themselves flat to the ground, aim, and fire their Glock pistols, hitting distant targets. They jump up, run, and fire again from standing positions, repeating the drill with Kalashnikovs.
    Duboscq, who is a volunteer, runs the Mamba team through its paces. His passion for elephants, conservation and the park brings him back every year to keep Zakouma's troops sharp -- and the animals safe.
    Duboscq leads the men through a rallying cry for Zakouma; the rest of the exercise is all business. They're capable of taking on armed poachers, handling sniper rifles, and engaging in a firefight. They're trained in making arrests, judicial procedures and presenting evidence in court.

    A deadly game

    It's a sharp learning curve, but it's necessary to fight off the lethal threat poachers present. Often organized criminal gangs, international trafficking mafias and terror groups are behind the poaching raids, providing skills and sophisticated arms to carry out the killing.
    "Of course it's dangerous," says Mamba team member Ahmat Assilek. "But we do it because it's our national patrimony ... that's why we're ready to die."
    And these men have skin in the game. Among the group training today, four lost fathers to poachers when a six-man Zakouma anti-poaching unit was gunned down outside the park in September 2012 during morning prayers.
    The raid was a suspected retaliation killing for the capture of a group of poachers who had slaughtered six elephants the previous month north of the park. According to park staff, the raid on the poacher camp netted satellite phones, solar chargers, stamped Sudanese army leave slips and insignia, and 1,500 rounds of ammunition.
    The poachers weren't minor league opportunists. They were well equipped to slaughter elephants for their ivory -- and to kill anyone trying to stop them.
    23 Zakouma guards have died on the job since 1998.

    New management

    Park manager Rian Labuschagne understands the dangers confronting Zakouma and its staff. Along with his wife, Lorna Labuschagne, the conservationists were tasked with safeguarding the surviving elephant herds in 2010, when African Parks, a South Africa-based non-profit organization, took over the management of the embattled park following a decade-long elephant killing spree.
    Before the Labuschagnes and African Parks took over the 3,000-plus-square-kilometer area, the territory suffered huge losses.
    In 2002, an estimated 4,300 elephants lived in Zakouma. A decade later that figure had plummeted by 90 percent, most of them slaughtered by poachers for their ivory. The elephants were in danger of being wiped out.
    About 450 elephants make Zakouma their home today -- roughly half the entire elephant population of Chad, says the park's field operations manager Darren Potgieter. It's a far cry from the 50,000 elephants that roamed the country's savannahs and scrublands 50 years ago.
    The statistics for the region are equally dire. As recently as 1970, Potgieter says, 300,000 elephants roamed a Texas-sized area that included southern Chad, eastern Central African Republic, southwestern Sudan, and northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, only small pockets of elephant populations remain, and they remain under threat.
    This is not one of the world's thriving neighborhoods; each of these countries has experienced protracted wars, and all have impoverished populations.
    Poaching, shrinking habitats, human-animal conflict, war and a seemingly insatiable appetite for ivory in Asia -- particularly in China -- have all contributed to the disappearing populations of elephants and many other species. Zakouma is no exception.

    Turning the tide

    So the Labuschagnes, with their African Parks staff and volunteers, set out to reverse the grim Zakouma statistics, which eclipsed even the worst trends of vanishing elephant populations across much of the African continent.
    For years, the constant fear of being hunted and killed had made the elephants too stressed out to reproduce. But by the end of 2011, Zakouma started to see a dramatic turnaround. Since then, no elephants have been poached in the park, and no ivory has been taken from the park in five years.
    More than 40 calves have been welcomed into the herd since the end of 2013. The births are an important step towards the park's goal of increasing the herd's size to more than one thousand within the next decade.
    The gains of the past few years were hard-earned. And the benefits have been reaped not only by the animals but by people living nearby as well.
    Communities around Zakouma have been given a stake in the battle against poachers. It has not only meant well-paid jobs as guards, rangers and support staff, but the patrols in and on the periphery of the park also mean better security for the surrounding villages and nomads.

    24-hour tracking

    There's even a toll free number to call with any concerns regarding the security of the elephants or the people, and many villages have radios to connect them to the park's nerve center -- a 24-hour military-style operations room with radios, computers, and near real-time tracking of elephant herds.
    As Potgieter gives a tour of the command center, the radio crackles with constant communication from guard teams on the ground. Computers and maps display elephant groups' locations. "We have 11 collars on as many family groups as possible," says Potgieter, pointing to black marks on a map showing the positions of the elephants. The satellite collars enable monitoring and protection, and there's always a guard unit within a few kilometers of the herds.
    Another 4 elephants were outfitted with satellite collars in late February. In one collaring operation, Potgieter circled overhead in a Cessna light aircraft, guiding Labuschagne's team through kilometers of scrub and high grasses to an acacia forest. It was midday, the elephants a bit more dozy in the searing heat. They may feel somewhat safer in this seemingly inhospitable forest of thorn trees. But it's tough tracking them through the scratchy terrain.
    Legendary wildlife veterinarian and consultant to the park Dr. Pete Morkel flew to Chad from southern Africa on his annual mission to help with the collaring. After preparing the necessary drugs and tranquilizer gun, Morkel and Rian Labuschagne set out on foot to get close to the 90-strong herd. The two worked without words, silent gestures sufficing for the pair who have done this together before.
    A few large female elephants were visible through a gap in the thick acacias as they fanned their ears to cool themselves. Morkel watched and waited for a suitable individual to tranquilize, wanting to avoid a mother with a calf. After few minutes' wait, he took aim and darted one with the tranquilizer gun.
    A single trumpet from the forest signalled alarm, and the herd quickly dispersed into the tangle of thorns. Morkel and Labuschagne approached a teenage female, now lying on her side. The pair, followed by the rest of their team, set to work quickly, fitting the collar while pouring water over the sedated elephant to keep her cool. Lorna Labuschagne held the tip of the trunk to enable the elephant to breathe unencumbered.
    As the team adjusted the collar, Morkel treated an old festering wound in the elephant's right front foot. He guessed it was likely from a spray of gunfire in the days when poaching in the park was out of control. This female's darting may have been lucky for her.
    Rian Labuschagne says the collaring isn't just necessary to track and protect the elephants -- it is the main goal of the operation.

    Will Zakouma's success be contagious?

    Kenyan officers burn 15 tons of ivory on March 3.
    The success in and around Zakouma has been noted by Chadian President and conservation advocate Idriss Deby, who has asked African Parks to come up with an elephant protection scheme for the entire country.
    Chad, under its National Elephant Protection Plan, burned the country's ivory stockpiles in February 2014. A number of African countries have likewise burned their ivory stockpiles in order to stop poaching and illegal trafficking of the highly profitable commodity. Kenya set alight a 15-ton pyre of tusks in early March of this year, and Ethiopia followed suit two weeks later.
    But reviving the elephant population isn't the only goal Zakouma and African Parks have in mind.
    Their stewardship of the wilderness area is evident in the richness of the ecosystem here. Buffalo herds have rebounded, the lion population is rising, and about half of the continent's Kordofan giraffes live here -- not to mention an abundant variety of antelope and bird species.
    Conspicuous by its absence from this list is the black rhino, last spotted in Zakouma in 1972, according to the Rhino Resource Center. In April, African Parks hopes to reintroduce the species into the park. Asked whether this would bring unwanted attention from poachers -- rhino horn commands an even higher price than elephant tusks on the illegal market -- Potgieter replies: "Someone has to take the bold step and reintroduce rhino. There are lots of responsibilities and lots of risks in park management."

    'These animals are our legacy'

    No doubt additional patrols will need to match new protection needs.
    So far, African Parks and Zakouma have met those security demands and challenges, but the battle to protect some of the world's most iconic species is far from over.
    Armed guards on horseback are a constant reminder of the battle to protect the park. The guards have been bolstered by new equipment, including sniper rifles. But the financial stakes in this fight are high, and well-armed poaching gangs are always upping the ante.
    The pressure on the animals won't let up, and this war will continue. The Zakouma guards know this, and are prepared to fight, even if it means death.
    The reason is simple, Mamba team ranger Ahmat Assilek says: "The animals you see are the legacy for future generations."
    For more info about the park, click here.