Zakouma National Park is an elephant oasis in southeastern Chad (map of Chad).
The park is located in a Texas-size wilderness region that was home to about 300,000 elephants as recently as the 1970s.
Wholesale slaughter fueled by the international ivory trade has left only about ten thousand elephants alive in the region today.
The heavily patrolled park is key to the animals' survival, but its officials can't protect elephants that stray beyond its borders.
Though elephant hunting is banned in Chad, the black market trade in illegal ivory is becoming increasingly lucrative.
(Related news: "Record Ivory Cache Traced to Zambia Elephants, DNA Shows" [August 2006].)
The Chadian government and the EU's CURESS (Sudanese-Sahelian Ecosystems Conservation and Rational Utilization) project invited Fay to survey the park's elephant population in 2005.
His comprehensive count indicated that 3,885 elephants lived in Zakouma.
But a follow-up survey in 2006 yielded only 3,020 animals, suggesting that either a large herd was missed in the countor that hundreds of animals had possibly been killed in a year's time.
The results led to the August survey aimed at gauging poaching activity during the wet season, from May to October.
In the wet season elephants are known to wander outside the park's boundaries in search of better forage (download wallpaper of elephants at an African water hole).
"During the wet season more elephants may be outside of the park boundaries than inside," Fay explained. "The corridors they use to leave have been known for a long time, but no one had surveyed outside the park in the wet season."
It did not take Fay long to uncover evidence of large-scale killings on the fringes of Zakouma. His team was in the air less than two hours before they began spotting dead elephants.
Killers, Kills Clearly Visible From the Air
Fay discovered five distinct elephant-massacre sites during flights between August 3 and 11.
All of the animals found had been killed since the end of May, and more than half were slaughtered in the days just before the August survey started.
"Flying on the southern border of the park, we noticed dead elephants right on the border, both in and outside of the park, near where a massacre had occurred back in May when we were there," Fay explained.
"They got zapped when they reached the park border, at a spot only 1 kilometer [0.6 mile] from the other massacre site [we'd seen] in May."
Poachers appear to have set up camps just outside the park near known elephant pathways.
"We flew over a camp and there were a bunch of guys there with horses," Fay recalled.
"They were packing up very quickly and looking very guilty, so our assumption was that if we find dead elephants, and five minutes away we find a camp with guys running around looking guilty, they must be poachers.
"We found 20 carcasses right there surrounding that camp," he noted.
Two days later Fay had a much more direct encounter. His plane flew over another suspected poachers' camp, where he spotted a horseman with an assault rifle.
The individual opened fire on Fay's plane as it made its third pass over the campflying just 150 feet (46 meters) above the ground.
No one was injured in the attack.
Urgent Response in Motion
Chadian and EU officials armed with Fay's information have enacted an emergency effort to provide aerial and ground patrols outside the park's borders in hopes of protecting roving elephant herds through the end of the wet season.
"We've agreed to let them use our airplane for the next few months to do similar work to what we did: finding out where poachers are and letting them know that people are flying over," Fay said.
"That scares [the poachers]. Then [government officials] can follow up with ground patrols on horseback like they do inside the park."
To ensure more permanent protection, funds may be raised to build a new wet-season antipoaching base north of the park near several massacre sites.
The camp could allow officials to maintain the same kind of vigilance that has been largely successful inside the park.
"It's a very arduous way to protect elephants, all day every day," Fay said. "You've got to be there all the time, every day, year after year. If you're not there, they are going to poachno doubt about it."
But Fay hopes to prevent the area's elephants from sharing the fate of the black rhinoceros, which was poached to local extinction in the 1980s.
The poachers "are still hammering away," he said, "and they will kill every single elephant if [the animals] are not protected."
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