Poaching May Erase Elephants From Chad Wildlife Park

Tasha Eichenseher
National Geographic News
December 11, 2008
The elephant population in one of central Africa's remaining wildlife strongholds may vanish within the next two to three years if poaching continues at recent levels, according to conservationists who recently surveyed the park.

Researchers conducted two sample surveys this year of African elephant populations in Chad's Zakouma National Park. Both counts indicate that there may be just a thousand members of the species left in this 1,200-square-mile (3,100-square-kilometer) refuge.

That represents a significant decrease from 2005, when the population was estimated at 3,885. In 2006 conservationists counted 3,020 elephants.

After the 2006 census, nearly 120 elephant carcasses leftover from ivory poaching were discovered in herds in and around park.

(Watch video from the 2006 survey.)

Because some elephants leave Zakouma during their winter migration, the 2008 numbers—from both the Chadian government, in conjunction with the European Union, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—are rough estimates. WCS will conduct a full census next spring, when elephants have migrated back to the park and its replenished water sources.

But the organization's director for Africa programs, James Deutsch, said he expects the worst.

"A thousand is our best educated guess," Deutsch said. "It would be pretty surprising if the number was above 1,500."

Increased Poaching

WCS biologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence J. Michael Fay points the finger at poaching, which he says has intensified in and around Zakouma since 2005 due, in part, to the increased acceptability of and access to the global ivory trade.

The 2008 population estimates are based, in part, on reports of poaching and the discovery of at least 300 elephant carcasses.

"What we do know [now], is that we have an enormous poaching problem that didn't exist two years ago," Fay said.

Fay helped conduct the 2006 census with partial funding from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"Even if you are looking at the most optimistic estimates [closer to 2,000 left], that means your elephants will last three years [if poaching continues at current rates], which is catastrophic," Fay added.

"There is a massacre going on, unless something drastic happens."

To the chagrin of many conservationists, the first officially sanctioned ivory trade in a decade happened in October. The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to sell 108 tons of government ivory stock to Chinese and Japanese buyers.

(See related: "1st Legal Ivory Auction in Ten Years Yields $1,300,000" [October 28, 2008].)

"Just in the past two years, the world thinks it is okay to buy ivory again," Fay said. "Anyone who thinks you can control ivory on the market is dreaming."

CITES officials argue that there is no proven connection between controlled sales and increased poaching.

"In fact, levels of illegal ivory trade decreased in the two years following the first one-off sale [in 1999]," CITES spokesperson Juan-Carlos Vasquez said in an email.

"Poaching levels appear to be more closely related to governance problems and political instability in certain regions of the continent … ."

Protective Measures

After the 2006 survey and graphic images of the slaughtered elephants captured global attention, Chad's president burned ivory stocks and donated armed trucks to the park for poaching patrols.

But political turmoil last year and a change in park management complicated the situation, making it more difficult to monitor wildlife, Fay said.

2007 was the worst year on record for poaching, according to WCS pilot Darren Potgieter, who conducts aerial anti-poaching patrols and censuses.

"It was all-out war," he said. "We lost five guards and one army lieutenant, compared with six guards and two regular employees in the preceding 16 years, and hundreds of elephants."

The good news, according to Fay and Potgieter, is that since May 2008, WCS and the Chadian government have been able to make daily flyovers of the park with a newly designated anti-poaching patrol plane. Guard forces are also increasing, with help from the Chadian Army.

The poaching situation has improved this year, according to conservationists. "Already … this aircraft has helped the park guard force to locate poached elephants and poachers," Fay said. "We are optimistic that with increased armed protection we can keep a lid on the poaching this year."

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