Amongst the tales of war, famine and corruption in Chad it’s hard to believe there’s a story of natural beauty reminiscent of the glorious parks of southern and eastern Africa. Somehow throughout the last forty years of conflict, Chad’s own Masai Mara, Zakouma, has managed to cling on, with only the black rhino going extinct.
After months of claustrophobia in the N’Djamena weekend scene, which involves endless NGO parties, and dinners at a handful of restaurants where the menu is known by heart by everyone, it was a true culture shock to get out into the countryside. I can actually say I had a wonderful time, without having to resort to drunken diving in swimming pools.
At 3am, after a delicious supper and a decent bottle of wine, thirty glinting eyes hovering on the surface of a moonlit pool were serenaded by bad guitar and an Aussie and singing ‘never smile at a crocodile’. Just before we’d followed a leopard for half an hour, chasing his distinctively striped tail as it darted through the undergrowth, our naturalist companion standing on the roof of the vehicle doing a spookily convincing version of a baby buffalo caught in a trap.
But there is more to say than just recounting my adventures. Zakouma boasts Central Africa’s largest population of elephants, which in the 1970s numbered around 150,000. Today that figure is about 600, with more than 3,000 having been lost to poaching in the last three years.
Instead of a thriving habitat, untouched and unquestionably alive, for a time Zakouma became known for death. Rotting carcasses, their faces slashed off, dotted the emerald grasslands; visitors talked only of the smell. At one point more an average of three elephants a day were being killed to fuel a trade in ivory which was buoyed by a one-off legal sale in 2005.
Today anti-poaching efforts are working and no elephants have been lost in the last six months. Horse-backed guards communicate directly with a team in the air who make almost daily aerial surveys of the park. I did see the elephants from the air, along with a shockingly beautiful sunset, and they were still very much alive.
***NOTE*** sadly since I wrote this, three more elephants have been killed