Zakouma is game for conservation
National park in Chad now also home to six black rhinos from Addo, writes Michelle Jana Chan
They are the first black rhinos to be seen in Chad since the species was wiped out in there by poachers half a century ago
Those in the know mention Zakouma with reverence, hushed awe and longing. The national park in Chad has long commanded near legendary status throughout Africa for its abundant wildlife and true wilderness.
It recently became even more renowned when six black rhinos were flown nearly 5000km from Port Elizabeth to land on a purpose-built runway in the middle of the park. Before that the rhinos spent three months in bomas at the Addo Elephant National Park after having been brought down from Marakele National Park in Limpopo’s Waterberg Mountains.
They are the first black rhinos to be seen in Chad since the species was wiped out in there by poachers half a century ago.
Their arrival makes Zakouma the closest “Big Five” destination to Europe, the rhinos joining lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo as residents of the park.
All the rhinos have been de-horned and electronically tagged to deter poachers. If they survive and thrive, another 14 will follow at a later date.
Established by the Chad government in 1963, Zakouma used to be where French colonials came for trophy hunting, rivalling even Kenya for its bounty.
Then civil and military unrest rocked the country. Chad doesn’t have the easiest of neighbours: Libya, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Sudan; and at different times there has been fighting on almost every side.
Even today, some countries advise against all but essential travel to many parts of Chad. However, it is possible to visit as a tourist using one of the specialist guides who operate in Zakouma.
From the 80s onwards, Chad’s instability brought in poachers. Zakouma’s elephant population declined sharply and rhinos disappeared entirely.
Then, in 2010, the government turned to African Parks, a private, non-profit organisation based in Johannesburg with a reputation for rigorous park management and military-style training for its rangers.
They were already taking care of some of the most neglected parks on the continent, such as Majete in Malawi and Garamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and with some success. It was now the turn of Zakouma.
I flew via Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to N’Djamena, Chad’s sleepy low-rise capital on the banks of the Chari river, so full of hippos they can be spotted on the approach. We spent 24 hours here, getting to know the other safari guests (eight of us in total) who had come from London, Miami, Hong Kong and Seattle.
Early the next morning we headed back to the airport to board the domestic flight, run by Mission Aviation Fellowship.
At Zakouma we were met by staff, including aptly named driver Bonaventure, and so our adventure began.
The landscape of Zakouma is a mix of scrubby bush, gallery forest, grassland and marshes. On our first 4x4 outing, an Abyssinian roller darted between the branches of an acacia tree, there was a flash of a green bee-eater, and we spotted pronking Lelwel hartebeest, shaggy waterbuck and a herd of Roan antelope with their warrior markings and sabre-like horns.
Eagles and harriers circled above. Baboons squabbled over the blossoms of a sausage tree.
A pair of bull elephants moved out of a copse. I dismissed any preconceptions the park might be depleted or the animal behaviour skittish.
We set up camp in front of Rigueik Pan. The abundance of birdlife was something I had not seen before.
Elsewhere you might see a few pairs of cranes; here the flocks are so huge they appear as layers of greys and whites from the far left of your vision to the far right.
The concentration was astonishing and my focus wasn’t helped by the heat, with temperatures around 45°C, nor by the dust in the air. Zakouma is affected by the Harmattan, the north-easterly trade wind referred to in
The English Patient as a red wind which, when it mixes with rain, can be mistaken for blood.
The extreme weather, combined with Zakouma’s geography, helps explain the density of the wildlife. North is parched desert; south thick rainforest – neither a haven for a wide range of species – meaning the animals are contained here.
Amid the profusion of game, perhaps the most uplifting sighting is of elephants, the symbol of Zakouma’s remarkable turnaround. Joyfully, there are now calves among the herd, signalling the end of the trauma of heavy poaching which stopped the elephants breeding.
African Parks have been here only eight years but they have pulled off something significant: securing the park, reducing poaching to almost zero and allowing animal populations to recover.
Every night I heard lions through the netting of my tent and we sighted them on most days. Central African savanna buffalo, reduced to about 200 animals in the 80s, number more than 10000 today.
After dark on night drives there were multiple sightings of genet, civet, serval and African wildcat too.
Now, with black rhino in residence, the pressure to protect the park will increase, but Leon Lamprecht, Zakouma’s park manager, feels confident. “With our people, our training and our communication we are fully capable of looking after Zakouma,” he said.
In the past 18 months there hasn’t been a single, successful incident of elephant poaching in Zakouma.
Chad may not be an obvious safari destination, but it deserves to be. In Zakouma there are two camps for international guests, the most comfortable being Camp Nomade and the more basic Tinga.
I travelled with Johannesburg-based Richard Anderson, of Anderson Expeditions, who is allotted Camp Nomade for one week a year. Anderson arranged two nights even deeper in the bush, fly-camping by the Salamat River and this was where my most treasured memories of Chad were made.
Time slowed down there: hearing the shush-shush of my footsteps, inhaling the looming heat and picturing my remoteness, it felt like my life was lengthening – and that is surely the greatest of gifts. – The Telegraph
5 Fascinating facts about Chad
There's a shape-shifting lake
Lake Chad is a vast body of water which is not always vast. Pinned to the west edge of the country it spills over the borders into Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria, making it a multinational proposition – it has been known to shrink and grow according to weather conditions. In the 25 years between 1963 and 1998, it is believed to have lost as much as 95% of its surface area, but has expanded again in the last two decades. It is fed by the River Chari, which begins in the highlands of the Central African Republic, and flows north-west across Chad, before pouring into the lake.
It has very high places
Head to the far north of Chad and you find a place where the Sahara Desert reaches for the heavens. This is the Tibesti Mountains – which sprawl across the border into Libya, but save their song-and-dance moment for Chad in the form of Emi Koussi, a shield volcano that rears to 3445m. This makes it the Sahara’s rooftop.
It hosts one of Africa’s most evocative festivals
Although it is more closely associated with Niger, Gerewol is an annual courtship ritual which also lends its mythology to some of the young people of Chad – such as the nomadic Mbororo. Its music and magic tend to take place in September, once the rainy season has ended – although, unusually, it is the men of the tribe who dress up and daub their faces in make-up to impress a potential partner.
It’s landlocked – but you can go to the beach
Chad is nowhere near the ocean. The nearest seaport, Douala in Cameroon, more than 1000km to the south-west. But if you feel like a stroll on the sand, you can have it in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, which has a long beach on the River Chari.
You likely won’t get phone reception
One prime example of Chad’s lack of development is its mobile phone coverage. While much of Africa has embraced this new connectivity as a cheap form of communication, Chad has lingered behind. In 2014, the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index (NRI) – which ranks the developmental levels of countries’ information technology systems – placed Chad at 148 out of 148 nations, just below Burundi, Burma and Guinea.
FOR five months of the year, Zakouma is drenched and pretty intolerable. It is only open to visitors in the dry season from mid-November to the end of May, when the area changes from waterlogged to lush and green.
Johannesburg-based Richard Anderson, of Anderson Expeditions, is allotted Camp Nomade for one week a year. Anderson Expeditions offers a seven-night safari based at Camp Nomade and its fly-camp; the next safari is from February 12 to 19 next year. Visit andersonexpeditions.com
Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways fly to Chad from OR Tambo International in Joburg; you will likely fly via Addis Ababa or Cairo.
South African passport holders need a visa to visit Chad and the country has an embassy in Pretoria. Call them on (012) 346-6054 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to request an application form. You need not submit it in person in Pretoria, but may use a visa processing agency of your choice.
You will also need a yellow fever inoculation certificate, among other requirements. – The Telegraph and Louise Liebenberg