Interviews: Tracking Elephants in Chad National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence Mike Fay is tracking the migration of elephants on a conservation mission in Chad. He spoke recently with Alex Chadwick as he watches three lions eating a young elephant they recently killed.
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Interviews: Tracking Elephants in Chad

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Interviews: Tracking Elephants in Chad

Interviews: Tracking Elephants in Chad

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In north-central Africa, a U.N. official says the refugee crisis on the border between Chad and Sudan may be easing. Chad had threatened to begin forcing 200,000 Sudanese refugees back home. Now Chad's president has promised to wait.

Chad is also the temporary home for one of the world's great wanderers, Mike Fay, a research scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. When we spoke recently, Mike was watching something that must be very common but is extraordinary to witness.

Here's a National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview.

Mike Fay, tell me what you're seeing now.

Dr. MICHAEL FAY (Research Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society): I'm seeing in Southeastern Chad, of all places, I'm on the back of a truck, and we're about 10 feet away from a big old male lion eating a dead elephant.

CHADWICK: Mike, this is an adult elephant that was brought down?

Dr. FAY: Three-year-old elephant. We don't know the sex.

CHADWICK: Three-year-old, that would be the sort of an adolescent elephant?

Dr. FAY: I would say more of a kid. Just a kid, hardly got tusks.

CHADWICK: What are you doing in this particular place?

Dr. FAY: This is a park called Zakouma National Park, and it's about the last bastion for wildlife left in Central Africa. So we're helping these guys do some surveys here. And we're trying to look at the areas outside the park for protection.

CHADWICK: This is a park in southern Chad, about 300,000 acres. Is that right?

Dr. FAY: Yes, 300,000 hectares and about 200 miles from Darfur. Ooh, this lion is tugging on this elephant right now. It's amazing how a lion can could eat a whole elephant.

CHADWICK: When did this lion kill this elephant?

Dr. FAY: A day before yesterday and it's been chomping on it ever since. He called in a couple of females for reinforcment today. But he's having his turn right now. Sun just went down.

CHADWICK: I'll note that you're speaking very quietly over this satellite phone we have because you're not -- how far away is that lion?

Dr. FAY: Oh, about 15 feet.

CHADWICK: And you're on the back of the truck?

Dr. FAY: Yeah, we're on the back of the truck. This is amazing. These lions just completely ignore you, their smorgasbord of carnivory that they just ignore us.

CHADWICK: Tell people what your actual mission is in this park. And what are you trying to document?

Dr. FAY: Well, you know, it's one of these places on Earth where people think nothing can work. It's hopeless. And they think about famine. And they think about warfare. And they think about insecurity. And they think about corruption. And yet here we are in this park that has been protected by the European Union for about the past 15 years. And we're working with them to look at protecting the areas outside the park, as well as inside the park, and reinforcing the mission here.

CHADWICK: What is the government of Chad planning for this area? I mean, they, as you say, have many other distractions at the moment. What do you think might happen here?

Dr. FAY: Well, you know, Chad is one of those places that's got a long and proud warrior history. So you know, I think the warrior games will always continue. But we had a bunch of soldiers drive through here a couple of days ago. And you know, they were having some problems with their vehicles. They had big old 50-caliber machine guns on the back of their trucks, and lots of guys that could have wasted a lot of wildlife if they wanted too. And they didn't kill a single thing. Because they're traveling through a wildlife area in their country and they respect it.

CHADWICK: You've explored so much of Africa, walked across the Congo basin, flown over many, many parts of Africa on conservation surveys. You say this is the most remarkable place that you've found. I'm amazed that you would say that about a place that's so much desert, that is so dry. And I think of wildlife places as being more, really, in the forest and in the rainy parts.

Dr. FAY: Yeah. Well, this is an incredibly rich little eco-system we've got here. It's one of the major rivers that flows into Lake Chad and it's kind of like a lake bed almost here. Everything kind of boils down to this one little area. And it's just incredibly productive from a biological point of view. There's millions and millions of birds here and tons of mammals and luxuriant growth. It's like a little oasis in the middle of a very desolate place.

CHADWICK: You are there for National Geographic, Mike, conducting this survey. What are your plans for the next couple of months? We hope to be able to call you back. What are you going to be doing?

Dr. FAY: Well, really, you know, we're documenting these elephants here in the dry season because this is the height of the dry season. And they're kind of boiled down into these last watering holes. And then, as the rains start sometimes in late May, we'll be following the elephants out of the park. And we're going to be following them with airplanes, as they travel towards the Sahara Desert. So we want to see how far they go and what kind of problems they encounter along the way.

CHADWICK: Conservationist and explorer Mike Fay speaking very quietly by satellite phone at the site of a lion kill in Zakouma Park in Southern Chad.

Mike, thank you for being with us again.

Dr. FAY: Yeah, thanks.

CHADWICK: Dr. Michael Fay has a website for this expedition. And there's a link to it at Mike says he'll begin filing updates tomorrow.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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