There are few uplifting chapters in the recent history of Africa's elephants. Almost 35,000 have been killed by poachers every year since 2010. Where they once roamed in their hundreds of thousands, now isolated herds dot the planes, many too traumatised to reproduce.
One reason is a booming ivory trade, fueled by African civil wars and ceaseless demand for trinkets in Thailand and China. Another is inadequate conservation techniques. Small teams of scientists and ill-equipped ranger forces are powerless against heavily-armed poaching gangs, many of whom have front line experience in wars in Uganda and South Sudan.
In central Africa, elephant numbers have declined by two thirds in the last decade. This year it was announced Mozambique lost half its population of 20,000 elephants in just five years. If trends continue, extinction is only a generation away.
Against the prevailing gloom, conservation success stories like Zakouma National Park stand out. A 1,158-square-mile preserve in formerly war-torn Chad, rampant poaching decimated Zakouma's elephant population in the first decade of the millennium, with numbers falling from around 4000 in 2006 to just 400 in 2010.
That was the year South African NGO African Parks (AP) took over. AP installed a new park director, Rian Labuschagne, who worked closely with the Chadian authorities to halt the decline. Elephant numbers stabilised, and now, after four years, they’re beginning to creep up again. In 2013, there were 23 new-borns. Last year there were 20.
The park has also seen growth in buffalo, lion and giraffe populations. And with the planned re-introduction of the black rhino, it will be the nearest park to Europe with the “big five”.
Labuschagne is a burly South African with a military background and 35 years conservation experience in parks across Africa. Zakouma’s success, he says, is largely down to the trust placed in him and his team by the Chadian government. “It's similar to when a foreign coach comes in to manage a soccer team. We take responsibility for that team. If we see the goalkeeper isn't working, we will get another. [At AP] we do not come as a mere technical advisor or a single team of scientists. We take responsibility for everything, from the recruitment of guards to the purchasing of equipment.”
Sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference. “Vital, if you need to protect an area, is a radio communication system. When I arrived they didn't have it. Radios build up morale. We have a 24 hour radio room operating, so our guards know that even if it's two o'clock in the morning, they can report an incident."
Fly two hours north of Zakouma and you’re in desert; fly south and you’re in rainforest. After a four month wet season, during which the park becomes virtually inaccessible, it dries out completely for seven months. “It’s a unique landscape, a unique ecosystem,” says Labuschagne.
It was in the wet season that the poachers used to strike. “Previously the park would close down for four months every year, and when it opened again, they would find 700-800 elephants missing. We operate in the park for 12 months of the year. We came in with a completely different strategy and put in place things like communication, proper training and satellite collars for the elephants. Immediately we began to track them.”
Elephants' famously good memories have worked against them in recent decades. After years of attacks from spear-wielding poachers on horseback, they learned to bunch together in tight herds like sardines under attack from sharks. When hunters swapped their spears for AK 47s, these time-worn defensive techniques spelled disaster; packed together in fear, they were massacred by the thousand.
And it's not only elephants whose lives are in danger. In 2012, six Zakouma guards were shot dead in retaliation for anti-poaching raids by Park guards. Labuschagne responded by stepping up the training of his front-line staff. “We recruited a younger team, and gave them better equipment and training. You're up against people with military experience who won't think twice about killing when confronted.”
Even with this elite force, it’s hard to avoid blind spots when controlling such a massive area. This was made painfully clear three weeks ago when a routine patrol flight noticed carcasses of two adult female elephants, one without tusks. The first poaching incident in three years was a blow, but it was bound to happen at some point, says Labuschagne.
“It's two we've lost over four years. We always knew it would come from somewhere. The good side is that the poachers have exposed themselves again. We have an informer system in with the local villages and communicate with them every day, so it's not so easy for big groups to come without being noticed. However, when it’s just two poachers in a 150,000 hectare area, it's hard to detect them. But now we know there's a hole on one side, so we can plug it… Once there's 600-700 elephants we can then take a few knocks per year. We’re always going to get knocks.”
Labuschagne is optimistic about Africa’s elephants. “I'm not worried that elephants will go extinct. It's the same with rhino, numbers might go very low, and they might disappear in huge areas that they appeared in before, but they won’t disappear completely.”
As the continent’s human population encroaches ever further on the habitat of its wildlife, conservationists must focus their efforts on smaller areas where numbers can be closely monitored and protected: “If we identify certain places and say, ‘here is where we are going to focus our efforts and make sure population goes up.’ Then we will have success.”
Still, Africa is just one front in the war against poaching. The other is thousands of miles away in the market places of Shanghai and Beijing.
“We are on the ground, on the front, the first man next to the elephant, but there's a whole chain of people doing equally important conservation work at consumer end of the ivory trade. If that doesn’t change, then we will always be under pressure.”
That side of things may be looking up as well, with China this year pledging to end the processing and sale of ivory. But there’s no chance of Labuschagne getting complacent: “We've just got to keep the curve of protection high enough so that the population doesn't go down. If 700 is the number we can protect, then that is what we will protect.”
On 29-30 April, Rian will attend the inaugural Giants Club Summit, hosted by president Uhuru Kenyatta in parternship with Space for Giants, the elephant protection charity backed by The Independent. To find out more about the Giants Club Summit, visit: spaceforgiants.org/giantsclub/summit
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