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

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)
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Though well armed, the guards lacked radios and had established no intelligence networks. “I was demoralized, but I had to keep working because this was our national patrimony,” the 38-year-old recalled at the park headquarters, a turreted stucco building that resembled a French foreign-legion fort. “Even if there was a single elephant left in Zakouma, we have the duty to protect it.” Brahim’s dedication, say observers, was a rare quality in a field where the main motivation factor is a desire to escape from grinding poverty. “Few of the guards give a rip if these elephants live or die—if you took away their salaries tomorrow they’d stop working,” says one wildlife consultant in Chad who didn’t want to be identified. Brahim is one of those rare guards, says Rian Labuschagne, who are driven by a passion for Chad’s endangered wildlife and a strict code of ethics.

Brahim began cultivating informants in nearby villages, trading small gifts for tips. “Little by little we recovered arms, we got information,” he said. In 2010 he began hearing one name over and over: Yaya Hassap. “I learned that every poacher who comes to this region passes through Yaya,” said Brahim, who began a search for the elusive figure. “He controlled a huge network.”

One day Brahim received a call on his cellphone from a number he didn’t recognize. “I said ‘Who is this?’ The person answered, ‘Yaya.’ I said, ‘Yaya?’ I wondered why he was calling me.” Hassap informed Brahim that he knew the ranger was hunting for him and requested a meeting. In a teashop in a bazaar near Am Timan, Hassap told Brahim about his partnership with Gargaf. The relationship had become strained, he said, because Gargaf had been cheating him on his share of ivory profits. “Yaya was very discontent,” says Brahim. Hassap made an offer: He would lead Brahim to his accomplice in exchange for a job in the park service. The ranger, with the approval of higher-ups, agreed.

Posing as an ivory buyer and arms merchant, Brahim telephoned Gargaf in March 2011. He had AK-47s, M-14 semiautomatics and 3,000 rounds of ammunition for sale. Would he be willing to come to Ndjamena to inspect the merchandise? Gargaf agreed to a meeting, and the commander of the Mobile Brigade provided Brahim with a safe house and weapons. Gargaf arrived in Ndjamena that evening. As he inspected the weaponry, the poacher bragged about killing 26 elephants in a single day at Zakouma in 2010, and about a string of other crimes. “He was very proud of his killing,” said Brahim.“Gargaf told me that he knew the [Zakouma] region very well, and when he realized how profitable [poaching] could be, he got deeper into it, and he found ivory buyers and guns and played a bigger and bigger role.”

At 10 o’clock that evening, Mobile Brigade troops surrounded the house and took Gargaf into custody. Gargaf was imprisoned in a military compound in Ndjamena. As a reward for his work, the government promoted Brahim to chief environmental officer in the Salamat region around Zakouma, an honor for a poor park ranger who had never gone to college. “These jobs are almost never given to someone without an education,” says Labuschagne. “But Adoum has the heart and the guts to do it.” Thanks to one man’s initiative, it seemed—at least for the moment—that Chad’s government had achieved a victory.


At Zakouma National Park, where Gargaf, Hassap and their Sudanese gangs had cut a swath of destruction for years, there were similar signs of a turnaround. In 2010, the park’s European Union benefactors, dismayed by the carnage, threatened to withdraw all their financing if Chad’s government didn’t bring in a qualified manager. They turned to African Parks, a South African nonprofit organization. Rian and Lorna Labuschagne, conservationists with decades of experience in Malawi and Tanzania, were brought in to protect the dwindling herd.

The Labuschagnes encountered ubiquitous evidence of slaughter and traumatized survivors. “You found carcasses all over the park when we came here. It was just a killing field,” Rian, the grandson of an Afrikaner missionary in Malawi, told me, as we sat on the terrace of Zakouma’s guest lodge beside the Tinga River at dusk, sipping Castel beers while baboons frolicked in the mango trees. All 450 survivors had concentrated into a single group, a behavior apparently inculcated during the 19th-century spear-hunting days, when bunching together made it harder for the Baggara Selem to isolate the weak. But now the animals’ behavior was accelerating their destruction. “It made it easier for poachers to shoot them,” said Rian. One of the first things they noticed was an absence of calves. “They had stopped breeding because of the constant shooting at them, the stress, like humans in a war situation,” Rian said. The elephants panicked at the sight of horses, the poachers’ main means of transport. Early on, an elephant bull charged a ranger on horseback when he felt threatened; the horse bolted and threw off its rider, who was projected headfirst into a tree trunk. He later died.

The Labuschagnes fired guards suspected of taking bribes, spent $100,000 on radios and GPS devices, and set up solar-powered systems and repeaters for the park’s radio network. They built ten airstrips on the periphery of the park and converted two old ones inside Zakouma into all-weather airstrips. They set up trailers stocked with food and other supplies to facilitate patrols during the rainy season, when Zakouma becomes impassable by road. They darted and collared elephants to keep better track of their movements. The Labuschagnes changed patrol positions daily and didn’t tell rangers where they were going until a few hours before they were deployed. “This eliminated the chance of information going out to the wrong people,” Rian said.

The poachers struck back hard. In August 2012, at the height of the rainy season—when some elephants leave their sanctuary and follow ancient migratory routes—Sudanese poachers killed six elephants near Heban, 60 miles north of the park. A ranger squad from Zakouma discovered the poachers’ deserted camp and seized satellite phones, solar panels, medicine, food, 1,000 rounds of ammunition and Sudanese military ID cards. Three weeks later, the poachers crept up on six rangers in the middle of dawn prayers and shot them all dead. “The cook survived and told the story,” said Rian. “We got there three days later and found their bodies.”

Sudanese troops captured one of the attackers and turned him over to Chadian authorities, who locked him up in Am Timan prison. But the warden allegedly smuggled in weapons in exchange for a bribe, and in August 2013, twenty-six prisoners, including the Sudanese poacher, broke out and disappeared. “He murdered six of our guards and he just walked free,” Babakar Matar Breme, Zakouma’s assistant park manager, told me bitterly. Casting a glance at framed photos of the six dead rangers on the wall of park headquarters, Brahim told me, “There is no justice in Am Timan. People there are always ready to take money and let the poachers escape.”


Weeks after his arrest, Gargaf, too, escaped from custody—walking out unchallenged from the military barracks in Ndjamena. “He came and went, he was well taken care of. One day he didn’t come back,” Brahim says with disgust. Now he was back in operation along the Chari River flowing through farmland south of Ndjamena. There were no game wardens or sanctuaries in this more fertile, populous corner of the country, but there were about 200 elephants. Subsistence farmers, angered by beasts trampling their crops, were often happy to collaborate with poachers. Gargaf and his gang murdered 63 elephants in August 2012 along the Chari and 40 elephants along the Chad-Cameroon border in an attack in which five Cameroonian forestry agents died.

The Cameroon army captured the poacher again in 2012. Gargaf again got away. A few months later came the massacre of the 86 elephants near Fianga. Brahim traced Gargaf to a new base in Goré, in southernmost Chad, beside the Central African Republic border. “I told my informant there, ‘If it’s day or night, it doesn’t matter, if you see Gargaf returning home, you call me,’” Brahim said. Then, last June 14—hours after the informant tipped off Brahim that Gargaf was back—a Mobile Brigade force broke down the door of Gargaf’s house and placed him under arrest. Interrogated after his capture, Gargaf maintained that he was just a small-timer. “I’m not hiding anything,” he told his interlocutors. “I’m a cattle trader...hired by poachers to guide them in their operations, for which they offered me one million francs [$2,500]. It was a proposition that I found much easier than trading cattle.” Gargaf admitted only to helping his group kill ten elephants around the Chari River, “and after they dispersed, I went back to herding cattle.”


A few months after Gargaf’s third arrest, I joined Rian and Lorna Labuschagne on a game drive through Zakouma to observe the progress they had made in stabilizing the onetime war zone. At midday, the best time for observing elephants in the wild, we climbed into a roofless Land Cruiser, laden with ice chests full of water, a GPS system and a hand-held beacon that would home in on signals emanating from several collared animals. As we turned off the road onto trackless savanna, a single-engine Cessna circled above, trying to help us by spotting the beasts from the air. We bounced over a field of dried mud, an impassable swamp during the rains, and negotiated around stands of tamarinds and seyal acacias. Buffaloes and small antelopes disappeared into the foliage just ahead of us.

Rian, at the wheel, tried futilely to raise the pilot, but he was on a different radio frequency. He then attempted communicating with him through the radio room at headquarters. “La base la base la base la base?” he intoned, in Afrikaans-accented French. He got no response. The park manager was growing frustrated. He made a few disparaging remarks about the park’s radio equipment and plowed on through the bush.

The heat was fierce, and there were still no signs of elephants. The Cessna continued to circle above us. Then Lorna, in the truck bed, picked up a faint signal. “They must be there, to our right,” she said. Rian plunged the 4x4 into a thicket. Slender acacia trunks bent and broke beneath the Land Cruiser, and needle-studded branches swung close to our heads. “It’s getting louder,” Lorna said excitedly.

We entered a field of tall elephant grass. Soon we were lost in a jungle of ten-foot-high stalks, unable to see a foot in front of us. But the signal was loud now—and up ahead, I saw a flash of movement. I heard a rustle in the reeds, caught a glimpse of gray, and then, through the sea of yellow, I glimpsed a massive bull. “Elephants!” Lorna proclaimed.

Rian pulled the car over and advanced on foot. I followed right behind him. We moved carefully through the grass, trying not to alarm them. The bush came alive with sound and movement—the rustling, munching and jostling of 250 elephants. We had come across the largest group, Rian whispered in satisfaction, maneuvering for a better vantage point. They were still mostly obscured behind the veil of grass, but I could make out individuals—a frolicking adolescent, a protective mother and her 2-year-old, a massive alpha male. Then, as we got to within 25 yards of the herd, the bush erupted in a chorus of trumpets. The blaring horns of dozens of elephants were accompanied by a strange, low vibrato—an elephant purr. I froze, unsure what to do. Was the cacophony meant as a warning for us to retreat? Rian shook his head and motioned for me to stay. He guessed, he whispered, that two groups of elephants had just crossed paths—and were simply saying hello.


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