Poachers Target Elephants in Chad Preserve

Zakouma National Park, a preserve in southeastern Chad, is home to 4,000 elephants. Sadly, they're not safe from poachers. Mike Fay, who wrote the article "Ivory Wars" for National Geographic, describes the problem.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Michael Fay can trace the life of an elephant by looking at the soles of its feet. He writes a short sentence about it in a long story in the March issue of National Geographic magazine. Fay is an explorer and conservationist. His latest report comes from Zakouma National Park in Chad, a place he describes as the last place on Earth where you can see more than a thousand elephants on the move in a single compact herd.

Although protected in this place, these elephants are still in danger from ivory poachers on the perimeter. Michael Fay's article, with photographs by Michael Nichols, is called "Ivory Wars: Last Stand in Zakouma."

And Michael Fay joins us in the studio. Thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. MICHAEL FAY (Explorer, Conservationist): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: The elephant whose life you could read in the soles of its feet, and apparently it has fissures on the bottom of the feet, like tree trunks, a little bit?

Mr. FAY: Yeah. It's kind of like your fingerprint, except it's this big oval pad and it looks like cracked mud basically. And so you can tell how old the elephant is. You can see how much it's traveled and the kind of terrain it's traveled over. So seeing a huge dead male elephant with all of that life and its history in its feet is pretty shocking.

HANSEN: You actually saw this elephant. It had been killed. What was its story? How did it die?

Mr. FAY: Well, we were on a patrol in Zakouma National Park, about seven or eight guards, they carry AK-47s and ride horseback, and pursue mostly Arab horsemen who kill elephants and giraffe in the park. So we were on patrol and we heard the first crack of an AK, and then the second one, and then a third one, and then a rifle, maybe eight and then 10 and then almost 50 shots. And we happened upon this elephant after they basically chased these guys off. And there it was, this huge beautiful male elephant dead as dead can be.

HANSEN: The refuge has been there for a long time - 15, 16 years. So hasn't poaching then always been a problem? What's changed?

Mr. FAY: Well, I think, you know, if you look at that general landscape, this Texas-sized area around Zakouma, it was a very wild place for centuries and it really suffered from Arab slave raids from the north over the centuries and became completely depopulated pretty much. So elephant populations increased and a lot of other wildlife increased.

The park was actually created in 1963, just after independence. A Frenchman, along with the new president of Chad, kind of made this happen. After independence, when management wasn't as good and these Arab horsemen found new, you know, license to kill, it really started up a poaching process that hasn't ended since. And most of Central Africa has been decimated over the past 30 years. And just a few little places like Zakouma remain. And Zakouma is the best.

HANSEN: They're protected within the perimeter of the park and armed guards are there to try and keep the poachers out. Is there more of a problem when the elephants migrate out of the park?

Mr. FAY: Yeah. I mean, over the months, as the rain started, the elephants start getting antsy and they start to break out of the park. And the first group that left, this huge herd of 800, within 24 hours of leaving the park they got hammered by Arab horsemen and 20 elephants were found, 20 carcasses.

HANSEN: How many elephants are we talking about? Do you have any more recent figures?

Mr. FAY: I would say that last wet season we lost a few hundred elephants from Zakouma, at least. I think what's important to know is that around this park, there were probably 130,000, 140,000 elephants in 1970. Today, with 4,000 elephants in Zakouma and a few thousand in one park, Garamba, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that's pretty much all that's left. Everything else has been killed by these Arab horsemen. More than 100,000 elephants have been killed in the last 35 years by these guys. And vast landscapes of Central Africa have been emptied of elephants in that time.

HANSEN: What is the market for ivory now?

Mr. FAY: Well, the world decided - just like they did for whales - that killing elephants for ivory was going to exterminate the elephant from the planet. So an international ban came into place, and Europe and the United States and Japan and many other countries that were big consumers of ivory just stopped buying ivory completely. And so all of a sudden, you couldn't sell a tusk if you wanted to. And for, you know, 10, 15, almost 20 years now, that ban has been fairly effective. But there's been, you know, increasing demand over time.

There's a new giant on the block and that's China. And the Chinese have a long tradition with ivory. So all of a sudden we see the Chinese with a very large capacity to consume resources, not jut ivory but oil and wood and aluminum and every other commodity. So I think it's just a follow-on to all this other increase in prices that we've seen in demand from the Chinese market. I'm not saying they're the only ones that are consuming it. I'm just saying that doubling or tripling of demand over the past three or four years, based on Chinese buying power, I think is the engine behind all this poaching.

HANSEN: What are the prospects now for Zakouma National Park remaining a refuge and the land around it?

Mr. FAY: Well, like everywhere, humans are on the move. And the insecurity in Chad is very high. The rebels are moving in every day, closer and closer. I heard someone talking about a kind of quiet genocide going on in southeastern Chad right now. And indeed, you know, the Jinjaweed are moving into the southeastern part of Chad very quickly.

So you'd say, well, the prospects are not good and maybe we should pull out because it's not secure. But what I've seen is that national parks, and if they're managed in an integrated way on a landscape, and they're talking to the local people and they're local governor and the military commander and have access to the president and have access to the European Union and the United States government, they can add a huge amount of security to an area.

And so what I saw was, you know, this park in Zakouma was not only the last bastion of kind of security for wildlife, but it was also securing the livelihoods of a huge number of people around that park. And we keep trying to convince the State Department and the E.U. and the World Bank and others that these kinds of projects do create an anchor for security, not only for wildlife but for humans.

HANSEN: Explorer and conservationist Michael Fay. His cover story, "Ivory Wars: Last Stand in Zakouma," appears in the March issue of National Geographic magazine.

Thanks for coming in.

Mr. FAY: Thanks again for having me.

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