This week’s dream
The elephant sanctuary that came back from the brink
Chad’s Zakouma National Park is home to “one of the most stunning conservation success stories in Africa,” said Rachel Nuwer in The New York Times. Less than a decade ago, this Central African preserve was a slaughterhouse: Poachers killed all but 400 of Zakouma’s 4,000 elephants amid the chaos of Chad’s 2005–2010 civil war. When the conflict ended, management of the preserve was passed to the South African nonprofit African Parks, and today Zakouma is “a rare safe haven for Africa’s imperiled elephants.” I saw that success on a Cessna flight over the preserve. My guides and I passed above an army of buffalo and “sent a procession of crocodiles slithering into the murky Salamat River.” Then the elephants came into view. Too numerous to count, some sucked up water from the river while others cooled off in the mud. “Babies, adorable in their ungainliness, playfully splashed around their elders’ feet.”
As the situation on the ground improves—the elephant population is expected to hit 1,000 by 2024—tourism will play a vital role in Zakouma’s recovery. The words “Chad” and “tourism” don’t normally go together. Land mines, suicide bombers, and bandits are all mentioned in a recent U.S. State Department travel advisory. But visitors to Zakouma are whisked from the airport to the park, and once there are guarded by well-trained rangers and supportive local communities. Those who make the journey will find they have an 11,000-square-mile preserve virtually to themselves. By day, safarigoers can view lions, cheetahs, leopards, and giraffes as well as elephants. “Night brings out a parade of smaller carnivores, including servals, pale foxes, and honey badgers.”
Lodging options are limited but growing. Visitors can book a tent with Camp Nomade, a mobile luxury outfit that moves with the wildlife on the Rigueik floodplain, or settle in at the more affordable Tinga Camp. One morning at Tinga, I sipped my coffee on an elevated porch just feet away from two massive elephants grazing in the bushes. It struck me just how much these animals’ world had changed in a few years. “People, formerly their hunters and killers, are now their protectors and saviors.” The fact didn’t appear to be lost on the elephants—“they seemed content to share their space with us.”
The nonprofit African-Parks.org manages bookings at Camp Nomade ($5,500 per week) and Tinga Camp ($135 a night).