The group moved en masse, marching through the grass toward a muddy pan. Rian and I hung back as the animals—like children jostling for space at a playground water fountain—crowded around, splashed and sucked the pool dry. A mud-covered teenager turned to face us, fanned his ears and raised his trunk in a gesture of annoyance, then turned awkwardly around and plodded off to join his kin. We followed them to a clearing, where we had an unobstructed view of the entire herd. The huge procession moved in a single line across the savanna. On and on came the elephants, an unbroken line of power and majesty.
“Look, there’s a calf,” Rian said excitedly, pointing to an infant sheltering behind its mother. It was one of 21 born in the last year, Lorna would later tell me, another encouraging sign of stability—the longest period of peace at Zakouma in decades. “We say our aim is to get Zakouma back to 1,000 elephants,” he said, as we drove back to headquarters in the fading light, exhilarated by our hour-long encounter.
The Labuschagnes guess that if all stays on course, they could achieve that number in a decade. One hopeful sign for them is a widening crackdown by governments against the black-market ivory trade: In January 2014, Chinese authorities destroyed more than six tons of confiscated ivory ornaments and tusks in Dongguan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong, a center for ivory smuggling. The destruction by China, the first ever by that country, follows the destruction of six tons of ivory in the United States in November 2013.
At Zakouma and along the Chari River, meanwhile, the battle against poaching goes on—though it is often hard to tell just who is winning. Some time before my arrival at Zakouma, the ranger staff appeared to have achieved another big success. After three elephants were killed near the park, Hassap, the criminal-turned-guard, had led a raid on a poachers’ camp that netted a trove of weapons and ivory. Hassap even brought back a photo of the corpse of a poacher killed in the attack, and collected $10,000 in reward money. But it soon emerged that Hassap had faked the raid and staged the photo, using his brother to play the corpse. Fired from his job as a ranger, he is currently in jail awaiting trial. “He just played a game with us,” said Brahim in disgust. Other guards have been suspended pending an investigation into their role in the fraud.
As for Hassan Idriss Gargaf, the master poacher’s whereabouts are difficult to ascertain. Is he, as some Chadian officials insist, locked inside Korotoro Prison, a notorious Saharan fortress surrounded by barbed wire, cited in a 2012 Amnesty International report for overcrowding, filthy food and water, poor sanitation, lack of health care, and extrajudicial killings? Or is he, as skeptics maintain, at this very moment lying in wait in a thicket of acacias, Brahim’s nemesis poised again to unleash carnage on the scale that Gary Roberts discovered near the Cameroon border a year ago? “If Gargaf has escaped again,” Brahim told me, as he stood with his comrades in front of Zakouma park headquarters, “it doesn’t make any sense for me to continue in this job. It would be an outrage.”