By David Quammen, National Geographic
The headquarters at Zakouma National Park, in southeastern Chad, is a sand-colored structure with a crenellated parapet that gives it the look of an old desert fortress. Outside the door to the central control room on the second floor hangs an image of a Kalashnikov rifle, circled in red, with a slash: No weapons allowed inside. Kalashnikovs are ubiquitous in Zakouma. All the rangers carry them. So do the intruders who come to kill wildlife.
Acacias shade the compound, Land Cruisers arrive and depart, and not many steps away, several elephants drink from a pool. Although the animals seem relaxed here, so close to the headquarters hubbub, they aren’t tame; they are wary but thirsty.
Zakouma, a national park since 1963, has at times been a war zone for elephants. Fifty years ago, Chad as a whole may have had as many as 300,000, but from the mid-1980s that number declined catastrophically due to wholesale slaughter by well-armed poachers, until Zakouma became an uneasy refuge for the largest remnant, about 4,000 elephants.
Then, during the first decade of this century, more than 90 percent of Zakouma’s elephant population was butchered, mostly by Sudanese horsemen riding in from the east on paramilitary raids for ivory. (See “Ivory Wars: Last Stand in Zakouma,” National Geographic, March 2007.)
These raiders are known as janjaweed, an Arabic word loosely translated as “devils on horseback,” though some ride camels. Their origins lie among nomadic Arab groups, highly skilled equestrians, who, once armed and supported by the Sudanese government, became ruthless strike forces during the conflict in Darfur and, later, freelance bandits lusting after ivory. For a while it seemed they might kill every elephant in Chad.
Then in 2010, at the invitation of the Chadian government, a private organization called African Parks (AP) took over management of Zakouma, and the trend came to a sudden stop. Founded in 2000 by a small group of conservationists concerned with such hemorrhagic losses of the continent’s wildlife, the nonprofit AP contracts with governments to restore and run national parks—with the stipulation that it will exercise full control on the ground. AP presently manages 15 parks in nine countries, bringing outside funding, efficient business practices, and rigorous law enforcement to some of Africa’s most troubled wild landscapes.
At Zakouma, law enforcement involves more than a hundred well-trained and well-armed rangers, mostly men but also women, deployed through a coordinated and strategically sophisticated operation. Leon Lamprecht, a South African who grew up in Kruger National Park, where his father was a ranger, is AP’s park manager of Zakouma.
“We are not a military organization,” Lamprecht said, while showing me a trove of weapons and ammunition in the armory, a locked shed on the ground floor of headquarters. “We are a conservation organization that trains our rangers for paramilitary.”
Peter Fearnhead, the CEO of African Parks and one of its co-founders, bridled at the notion that the organization is highly militarized. But he still stressed, when we spoke by phone, the need for well-armed security in the parks—not just for the protection of wildlife but also for people in nearby communities who may be subjected to rape, pillage, and plunder by the next wave of demons on horseback. “They recognize that it’s the park that brings stability, safety, and security for them,” Fearnhead said.
Lamprecht drew me a pyramid diagram of the levels of tasks as AP sees them. You build the base of the pyramid with law enforcement, infrastructure, solid staff—“area integrity.” After that you can advance upward: community development for local people, tourism, and ecological research.
The nerve center of this effort is the central control room, where fresh intelligence on elephant locations and any troubling human activity—an illegal fishing camp, a gunshot, a hundred armed horsemen galloping toward the park—is used to determine ranger deployments. The sources of information include reconnaissance overflights, foot patrols, GPS collars on elephants, and handheld radios placed with trusted informants in villages around the park.
The daily briefing begins at 6 a.m. There’s a long desk with a pair of computer monitors and, on the wall, a large map decorated with stickpins. On the morning of my visit, Tadio Hadj-Baguila, an imposing Chadian man in a turban and camo fatigues, head of law enforcement for the park, presided in French.
Lamprecht explained to me that the black pins on the map represent elephants. The green pins are regular ranger patrols—known as Mamba teams—six rangers to a team, bushwhacking through the park on five-day rotations. Their movement is dictated by the elephants, which the Mambas follow discreetly, like guardian angels.
And this, said Lamprecht—pointing to a red-and-white pin set aside from the map—represents a Phantom team, two rangers, doing long-range reconnaissance. Those are so secretive that not even the radio operator knows their locations, only Lamprecht and Hadj-Baguila.
The data are collated each morning and afternoon. “We play chess twice a day,” Lamprecht said. Across the chessboard are janjaweed and every other sort of poacher who might test the boundaries of Zakouma.
High on the wall, above the maps, hangs a series of plaques commemorating the losses, low in number but deeply begrudged, since AP took responsibility here. Incident. 24 October 2010. Zakouma NP. 7 elephants, one records. Another: 19 December 2010. Zakouma NP. 4 elephants. The plaques resonate like tolling bells. Amid the row of them is another, different but equally terse: Incident. 3 September 2012. Heban. 6 Guards. The murderous ambush by poachers of a half dozen rangers, on a hilltop called Heban, is a dark memory and an abiding incentive for vigilance within the culture of Zakouma.
Notwithstanding those losses, AP has stanched the flow of elephant blood. Since 2010, only 24 elephants have been killed, and no ivory lost. The janjaweed have been repelled, at least temporarily, toward softer targets elsewhere. And the elephants of Zakouma, after decades of mayhem and terror, have resumed producing young. Their population now includes about 150 calves, a sign of health and hope.
Threats of violent incursion remain severe for Zakouma but are worse still for Garamba National Park, in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Garamba is threatened and battered from all sides.
AP has managed Garamba since 2005 on a partnership contract with the DRC’s Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). Garamba’s landscape is a mosaic of savanna, dry bush, and forest, harboring the DRC’s largest population of elephants as well as Kordofan giraffes (a critically endangered subspecies), hartebeests, lions, hippos, Ugandan kob, and other wildlife.
It is the core of an ecosystem that includes three adjacent hunting reserves, in which some use by local people is permitted. Its history is fraught with warfare and militarized poaching. Its northern white rhinos (another critically endangered subspecies) were hunted to the brink of extinction; only two females survive in captivity. Garamba shares 162 miles of boundary with South Sudan, a tumultuous country that fought for its independence from Sudan in the early years of this century, then suffered power struggles and civil war. Other areas of unrest in Uganda and the Central African Republic lie not far away. Garamba’s location, its dense forest areas, and its ivory have made it a crossroads, an enticement, and sometimes a battleground for rebel armies and other dangerous interlopers for more than two decades.
In early 2009, for example, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—a cultish rebel group out of northern Uganda notorious for its abduction of children to serve as child soldiers and sex slaves, and led by the fanatic Joseph Kony—emerged from its refuge in the western Garamba ecosystem and attacked a village near the park’s headquarters, burning many of the buildings and stealing a large quantity of stored ivory.
The park rangers resisted, killing some of the LRA and losing 15 of their own. Just a few years later, roughly a thousand rebels in retreat from the South Sudan war flooded over the border. After the last big LRA attack, the director general of the ICCN, Cosma Wilungula Balongelwa, was very worried.
“I had almost lost hope that things could hold on,” he told me during one of his visits to the park. Back then, at the nadir, Balongelwa had asked Peter Fearnhead whether AP might cut and run. “Peter confirmed to me: ‘No, we won’t abandon Garamba.’”
Naftali Honig, a former wildlife-crime investigator (and a National Geographic fellow) with seven years’ experience busting poachers elsewhere in Central Africa, now heads Garamba’s research and development division—which includes intelligence gathering, species and habitat management, and technology operations.
Garamba has received help from National Geographic and other organizations developing new surveillance tools, such as acoustic sensing that can distinguish a gunshot, deep in the park, from a breaking tree limb. “African Parks has let Garamba have a slightly experimental edge to it,” Honig said, because it’s such a large park, facing such severe external threats.
But boots-on-the-ground patrolling is still the most crucial enforcement weapon. A British adviser named Lee Elliott briefed me on the training process. Elliott, balding above his gray sideburns, joined AP after an army career of 24 years, having enlisted as a private, risen through the ranks, and served in Afghanistan and elsewhere. When he arrived in Garamba in 2016, discipline and organization of the rangers were poor.
“There’s good people here. It’s just nurturing those good people.” He singled out Pascal Adrio Anguezi, a towering Congolese major who serves as head of law enforcement. Anguezi is a straight arrow—incorruptible. “It would be harder for us if we didn’t have Pascal,” Elliott said.
At the training ground we met eight exhausted rangers who were just finishing a 48-hour training ordeal. A full day of drills yesterday, fitness workouts last night, little sleep, a run this morning, and now they were dodging through the bush in teams of four with their rifles blazing. These were move-and-fire drills, two men always firing, providing cover, while the other two ran ahead. At the end of a charge, the team hammered their fire into a torso-shaped target on a tree. The real point here, Elliott explained, was to see who still had grit and discipline when exhausted.
Early one morning I rode along on a monitoring mission with Achille Diodio, the young man charged with keeping track of Garamba’s 55 Kordofan giraffes. Soon after we got into good giraffe habitat—open savanna punctuated with acacia and other trees they can browse—Diodio spotted a head on a long neck towering above the scrub on our right. From his folder of ID photos, he confirmed that this was GIR37F, an adult female, first sighted four years earlier. She was fitted with a transmitter, but it had long since stopped working, and Diodio was glad to see her now, alive and apparently well.
Diodio is the sort of rising young talent AP needs. He’s Congolese, born and raised in a small town near Garamba, and lucky to come from a family that could send him to secondary school in a larger town, then to the University of Kisangani. He won a scholarship for graduate study in China and made his way to Harbin, where he spent his first year learning the language. Having already acquired Lingala, Swahili, French, English, and a bit of Kikongo, he managed Mandarin. Four years later, with his master’s degree from a good Chinese university and a thesis on Congolese elephants, he joined AP as a volunteer. They weren’t slow in offering him a job.
Several of AP’s senior managers mentioned to me what they recognize as an urgent challenge: training and advancement of young black Africans into leadership positions. Let me put it crudely: AP needs more black faces at the top. Fearnhead acknowledged this need, noting that the problem is general to Africa’s conservation sector, state dominated for so long.
Likewise NGOs, including AP, haven’t done enough to train Africans in conservation biology and management. “We have to make more of an investment in that effort,” Fearnhead said. Bright young Congolese with conservation interests, like Diodio, shouldn’t have to travel halfway around the world and get their education in Mandarin.
The emphasis on paramilitary ranger forces presents AP with a second delicate issue: keeping such an armed force accountable. WWF, another large conservation organization, experienced criticism earlier this year based on allegations that anti-poaching forces it helped fund, in Asia and Africa, had committed human rights abuses against suspected poachers. WWF has commissioned an independent review into those allegations, and the review panel (led by Judge Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) has not yet issued its report.
How is AP different? “Our model makes us responsible for the rangers. They are our people,” I was told by Markéta Antonínová, a Czech-born woman educated in Prague, who worked with AP for more than a decade. Most recently Antonínová served as AP’s special projects manager at Pendjari National Park, in northern Benin, with responsibility for law enforcement and research. Unlike WWF, she told me, AP directly employs its rangers and accepts accountability for anything and everything those rangers do.
Pendjari is the last major refuge in West Africa for elephants and lions. It’s part of a transboundary complex that includes adjacent parks in Burkina Faso and Niger, and the Pendjari protected area (like the Garamba ecosystem) encompasses buffer zones along its southern and eastern edges where local people are allowed to hunt. It’s also one of the newest additions to AP’s management portfolio, as of 2017, under a 10-year contract and a $23 million collaboration with the government of Benin, the Wyss Foundation, and the National Geographic Society. If Zakouma is a provisional success story and Garamba a formidable work in progress, Pendjari is the promising startup.
Antonínová and her partner, a Canadian named James Terjanian, came to Pendjari at the start of AP’s contract, he as park manager and she as a sort of co-manager, until having a young family compelled them to relocate. As always, building the law enforcement capacity was an urgent challenge. From just 15 poorly trained guards, the force at Pendjari has grown to about a hundred solid rangers.
Antonínová was in Zakouma in 2012 when the rangers died at Heban, and she was in Garamba when the LRA burned the village near the headquarters in 2009. Pendjari National Park presents different challenges. You don’t have armed horsemen here, galloping in to plunder ivory, I noted. Or armies marching in from their wars, raiding villages.
“No,” she said. “Not yet.”
Before 2017, Antonínová told me, “everything in Pendjari was based on mistrust and conflict.” AP contracted to assume full management authority while trying to work collaboratively with all parties, for the benefit of wildlife, landscape, and local people. “There is no other way,” she said. It’s the African Parks model. Either you trust us, she said, or you don’t.
Once a year, at the end of the dry season, Garamba National Park celebrates Ranger Day, a festival of martial display and appreciation of those who carry the Kalashnikovs and the responsibility for defending the park’s wildlife and civil order. This year the big day began warm and clear. We assembled at the parade ground in late morning, and as dignitaries and visitors took seats beneath a marquee tent, as a hundred rangers held their positions at ease in midfield, Anguezi stood before us all, six-foot-five and commandingly crisp in his uniform and green beret, with a wireless microphone at his left cheek and a ceremonial sword in his right hand. He would be emcee today.
At 11:25 Anguezi called the troops to attention. In marched a color guard of Congolese army soldiers—their berets orange, distinguishing them from the rangers—with the DRC flag. Then came a small band, blaring out an anthem with four trumpets, a tuba, cymbals, and two drums. An army general reviewed the rangers, with Anguezi at his side. By now it was hot enough that we were grateful for the electric fans sweeping back and forth across the gallery. Then the speeches began.
John Barrett, the general manager of Garamba, spoke briefly in French, setting a tone of appreciation for the troops, present and otherwise: “Nineteen rangers have died in action here. We mourn them today.”
John Scanlon, AP’s special envoy, a sort of global ambassador for the organization, touched on sustainable development for neighboring communities, and also (with the WWF allegations fresh in everyone’s mind) the need for anti-poaching ardor to be tempered with scrupulous respect for human rights.
ICCN Director General Balongelwa, who had come all the way from the capital Kinshasa for this event, talked about the partnership between his agency and AP, and after half an hour of his remarks, a ranger in formation fainted from the heat and was carried off. Eventually the parade resumed, directed by Anguezi’s sharp commands: ranger units in drill step, then four female rangers, then five elderly ranger veterans, then 200 schoolchildren in blue-and-white uniforms, and then again the band, tireless and doughty.
The final event of the day was a series of spirited tug-o’-war heats, pitting rangers against regular DRC army, rangers against rangers, eight men on a side, dragging one another across the dusty infield at opposite ends of a thick rope. Elliott, the British adviser, officiated cheerily in the midst of it.
By this time it had started to sprinkle. The dignitaries departed before things really got wet. The tug-o’-wars continued. The sprinkle turned into a downpour. The dust became mud, slippery as axle grease. The rangers, sliding, falling, and getting up to tug more, fought their hardest for inches of rope. Elliott, soaked and dirty, grinned with pride as he lined them up for another go. “If it ain’t rainin’, it ain’t trainin’,” said Naftali Honig.Then he and others, including myself, climbed into our Land Cruisers and headed to lunch.
As we left, the rangers remained, struggling gamely in difficult conditions, which is always the way it is.