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Imperiled survivors: A herd migrates across Chad, once home to tens of thousands of elephants. After a surge in poaching, only about 1,000 remain. (Kate Brooks)

The Race to Stop Africa’s Elephant Poachers

The recent capture of a notorious poacher has given hope to officials in Chad battling to save the African elephant from extinction

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The call came in to Gary Roberts last March at his home in Béré, a village of subsistence farmers deep in the sorghum and cotton fields of southern Chad. Reports were circulating, a local conservationist told him, that a mass killing of elephants had occurred some 100 miles away, near the Cameroon border: Could Roberts see what he could find out?

Roberts, 36, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary, experienced bush pilot and amateur conservationist who sometimes flies research missions for Chad’s wildlife department, climbed into his single-engine, four-seat Cessna. He took off from the mission’s dirt airstrip and headed north toward the border. Roberts cruised for three hours over a vast green carpet—low-lying brush, sorghum fields and stands of acacias, broken by an occasional dirt road or cattle trail. “I didn’t have any coordinates, nobody knew exactly where it was,” recalls the missionary-pilot, who grew up in Congo’s remote North Kivu province, the son of another Adventist missionary, and has spent nearly his entire life in Central Africa. “So I’m flying at 500 feet, looking for anything unusual.” As he passed over blackened scrub west of the town of Fianga, the result of a controlled burn to create arable land, Roberts noticed elephant tracks—hundreds of them—in the charred soil. He dipped his plane lower and followed the tracks to a clearing. It was then that he saw the first pile of bones.

Roberts counted the skeletons of between 15 and 20 elephants. The remains were fresh. “You could see the moisture in the ground from blood,” he says. Hungry villagers had already swarmed over the corpses, stripping their meat. Even the animals’ skin was gone, taken to fashion gris-gris, or totems, for animist ceremonies. A few hundred yards from the first site Roberts came upon a second heap of bones—then a third, and a fourth. “Twenty, thirty animals at a time had gone down. It was terrible,” Roberts says. The pilot estimated that 120 elephants had been killed here; the government would later put the total at 86.

The sole survivor of the massacre, Roberts would learn, was a 9-week-old calf, captured by villagers, roped to a tree and taunted day and night by the village boys. Roberts tracked down the location, drove there and loaded the weakened and traumatized orphan into the back of a pickup truck. He then drove several hours to the landing strip where he had parked his Cessna. After an all-night vigil, he used a container of milk to lure the elephant onto his plane, flew to his mission and tried to nurse the calf back to health. “He saw his whole family murdered, then ran around looking for his mother, then was tortured and abused for a week,” says Roberts, who even inserted a tube into the baby’s stomach to force-feed him. “The emotional condition of an elephant like that—it just shuts down.” The elephant, whom he named Max, died after ten days in Roberts’ care

Photographs of rangers murdered by poachers are displayed at Zakouma National Park. (Kate Brooks )
When conservationist Rian Labus­chagne (surveying the park by air) arrived at Zakouma in 2010, he found that the refuge had become “a killing field.” (Kate Brooks )
At Zakouma National Park, military commander Abakar Mohamat, left, confers with park official Adoum Mahamat Brahim on anti-poaching efforts. (Kate Brooks )
At Zakouma headquarters, a heavily guarded storeroom offers mute testimony to the carnage: a charnel house of elephant tusks and skeletons held as evidence. (Kate Brooks )
Bush pilot Gary Roberts (with Charlie, a rescued monkey) uncovered evidence of an elephant massacre during an aerial survey. “You could see the moisture in the ground from blood,” he recalls. (Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures)
A heroic and aggressive campaign across Zakouma has achieved dramatic results: Not a single elephant has been killed inside the park in two years. (Kate Brooks )
The elephants tend to stay together as a herd to defend themselves against poachers. (Kate Brooks )
The elephant population has dropped at an alarming rate, from 3,900 in 2005 to just 450 in 2010. Since then, intensive anti-poaching measures have been taken and the elephant population has stabilized. (Kate Brooks )
Zakouma National Park was home to one of the largest elephant populations in Central Africa until poaching exploded in 2008. (Kate Brooks )
Now that the elephant population has stabilized, calves have been observed for the first time in many years. (Kate Brooks )
At the site Roberts discovered, a herd of 86, including pregnant females and calves who had not developed tusks, were shot. “Twenty, thirty animals at a time had gone down,” Roberts says. (Kate Brooks )
Among the 86 elephants killed in the March 2013 attack were a number of pregnant females. (Kate Brooks )
Gary Roberts has taken in many orphaned or injured wild animals, including Charlie the monkey. (Kate Brooks )
Zakouma staff monitors communications with rangers in the radio control room, while plaques on the wall note poaching incidents and ranger deaths. (Kate Brooks )
The Tchadian National Nomadic Guard arrives in Zakouma to discuss anti-poaching measures and regional insecurity. (Kate Brooks )
The Tchadian National Nomadic Guard arrives in Zakouma to discuss anti-poaching measures and regional insecurity. (Kate Brooks )
Here, an elephant in Zakouma National Park is being collared in an effort to protect it from potential poachers. (Kate Brooks )
The Republic of Chad has taken action to protect Central Africa’s elephants by announcing the destruction of the country’s ivory stockpile. (Kate Brooks )
Bones of elephants killed by poachers in the March 2013 massacre lie scattered across the site. (Kate Brooks )

The Sahel, the vast, arid zone that lies between the Sahara and the Sudanese savanna, once supported a population of a million elephants. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century Western travelers wrote with amazement about the huge herds that roamed the bush, and the contests between the great animals and the Baggara Selem, Sudanese horsemen who pursued the herds with ten-foot-long spears. “Among the Selem, several are so dexterous that they can bring the elephant down with a single thrust of the lance,” observed Jules Poncet, a French ivory hunter who joined the chase in the 1860s.

But sport turned into slaughter in the 1970s, fueled by a proliferation of assault rifles from the continent’s post-colonial bush wars. A 1989 international ban on ivory tamped down the bloodshed, but China’s growing wealth and insatiable hunger for ivory—carved into brush-holders, boxes, statuettes and other intricate pieces—has pushed the numbers back up. Six years ago, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the United Nations body that regulates the international wildlife trade, declared China an “Approved Ivory Trading State”—allowing a one-time legal sale of ivory from four southern African countries, which at the time had large and healthy elephant populations. The sale to China of 62 tons of ivory from African stockpiles in 2008 reopened the door for a vast illicit market—by making the task of distinguishing legal from illegal ivory next to impossible. In Hong Kong, one of the ivory trade’s main transit points, seized ivory rose from 3.2 tons in 2010 to 7.9 tons in the first ten months of 2013—the equivalent of 1,675 dead elephants. Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines have also become major purchasers of elephant tusks. In December 2012, Malaysian authorities seized 1,000 elephant tusks hidden in secret compartments in two shipments of mahogany from the West African nation of Togo. The 24-ton seizure, worth tens of millions of dollars, is believed to be the largest such haul in history.

Now the Sahel has again become a killing ground. A year before the Fianga massacre, in February 2012, Roberts had also been nearby when 100 raiders on horseback had galloped out of Chad into Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park, mowing down between 300 and 600 elephants with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The killers stopped to pray to Allah between barrages of gunfire and played a cat-and-mouse game with the Cameroon army for two weeks before disappearing into the bush. Of the 50,000 elephants that roamed Chad 50 years ago, barely 2 percent are left. In the neighboring Central African Republic and Cameroon, the population may be even lower. Poverty, bribery and insecurity are all contributing factors in a region where a single large tusk can sell on the black market for $6,000—ten times the annual salary of a typical worker. Many conservationists say that if governments don’t do more to protect the remaining herds, the last elephants could disappear within a generation.

“What is special about elephants is just how similar they are to us—socially and developmentally,” says Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a Stanford ecologist who has written four books based on her Namibian field research on elephants. “If you watch a family group reuniting, their behavior is exactly like ours—the little cousins darting off together, the elaborate greetings of adults. Elephants offer a way of looking into the mirror, for better or worse,” she adds. “If we value human rights, we should also value animals that have the same level of sophistication that we do. We should keep those beings with us here on earth.”

When Gary Roberts found this orphaned elephant next to its dead mother, he made an attempt to fly it to safety

Last June, the government of Chad declared a significant victory in its often-faltering attempts to save its most endangered species. The Mobile Brigade for Environmental Protection, directly under the control of President Idriss Déby Itno, captured the alleged mastermind of the March 2013 killings at Fianga and many other massacres. Hassan Idriss Gargaf, 38, was said to command a gang of gunmen who rampaged across the Sahel over the last few years, growing wealthy from the sale of ivory and leaving a trail of dead elephants in its wake. Chad’s minister of the environment issued a press release calling Gargaf a “recidivist poacher,” the “mastermind” of some of the biggest elephant slaughters in Chad’s history and “a pivotal player in the international poaching network.” “He was the worst of the worst,” says Adoum Mahamat Brahim, a park ranger turned regional environmental chief who tracked Gargaf and his accomplices. The rise and fall of Gargaf sheds light on the combustible mix of corruption, desperation and globalization that is fueling the African poaching explosion. It also reflects the dedication of a handful of conservationists, rangers and other environmental crusaders who are determined to bring the killers down.

***

Hassan Idriss Gargaf’s twisted trail begins at Zakouma National Park, founded in 1963 and today one of the Sahel’s last refuges of the elephant. Comprising 1,200 square miles in remote eastern Chad, about 500 miles from Ndjamena, the park lies at the convergence zone where the sandy wastes of the Sahara give way to savanna and tropical rainforest. For five months a year, rainfall submerges most of the park. During the dry season, the residual rain collects in a handful of channels and hundreds of muddy pans, which sustain a vast population of birds and wildlife. “In the rainy season all this is just one big wetland,” park manager Rian Labuschagne told me, as we flew in his Cessna last December over thick riverine bush and acacia-speckled savanna. The landscape was still vibrantly green a month after the last rain. Lotuses clogged milky channels, and ponds glinted silver in the sun. Herds of buffaloes galloped across a grassy plain. As we dipped low over the Salamat River, crocodiles wriggled from the sandy banks into the water. Banking right, Labus­chagne circled over a group of 250 elephants, the largest assemblage I had ever seen. They fanned their ears and raised their trunks like snorkels—an instinctive response to danger.

Gargaf grew up on the park’s northeastern border, in Am Timan, a provincial capital of 75,000 people. It is a sleepy place of herders, cultivators, a smattering of missionaries, and government officials. Beyond the town lies sparsely inhabited bush, where Gargaf—the son of subsistence farmers—roamed in his youth as a guide for hire, leading livestock across ancient cattle trails.

In February 2003, just across the Sudan border in Darfur, two rebel groups rose up against the Islamist government, accusing it of marginalizing the country’s non-Arab population. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir unleashed Arab horsemen, known as Janjaweed (a term formed from the Arabic for “man,” “gun” and “horse”), in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the rebels and their civilian supporters. The Janjaweed raped, tortured and killed thousands and displaced two million, including 200,000 now in displaced persons’ centers and refugee camps in Chad. The Janjaweed financed their operations partly by poaching elephants in Zakouma, a one-week ride from Darfur. The AK-47-wielding horsemen—some direct descendants of the Baggara Selem—shot dead dozens of elephants every month in and around the park, sawing off the tusks and leaving corpses to rot on roads and in the bush.

Chad’s government was preoccupied with a homegrown insurgency; the park manager at the time, a European company contracted by the European Union, was ineffective; corrupt park guards tipped off poachers about the whereabouts of elephants and patrols. In 2008, the head of anti-poaching at Zakouma was fired for selling weapons to the killers. In six years, the elephant population at Zakouma plunged from 4,000 to 450.

Gargaf had learned the migratory routes of elephants from his cattle drives, and when Sudanese poachers approached him with an offer to serve as their guide, he leapt at the opportunity. Gargaf had fathered seven children with two wives, and he might well have felt financial pressure from his family responsibilities. Eventually, Gargaf teamed up with another pastoralist from Am Timan, Yaya Hassap. In 2007, the pair allegedly led Sudanese poachers into Zakouma, where they shot dead two guards, killed 13 elephants and destroyed several vehicles. Eventually the two partners in crime began their own poaching network—purchasing weapons, organizing logistics and finding a regular buyer of tusks in Ndjamena, a merchant known as Mahmadou.

***

Adoum Mahamat Brahim, the gaunt, soft-spoken wildlife expert from Am Timan, had always dreamed of working at Zakouma. As a boy in the bush, he became fascinated by elephant behavior and began doing volunteer patrols on horseback around the park as a teenager. The park put him on staff in 1998, at age 22, the same year that two rangers were killed in an early battle with poachers. Brahim watched, horrified, as carnage swept the park, and as men he had befriended lost their lives in the escalating violence. (A total of 19 park rangers and four military officers have been killed at Zakouma since 1998.) Almost every day he would encounter the corpses of elephants on the main road—shot down by poachers when they emerged from the bush.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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