Flying Over Zakouma National Park in Chad

In Chad, we have 3 areas to fly over for the elephant count, the first of them is Zakouma National Park. which just celebrated its 50 anniversary. Animals are doing well in the park and even the elephants, after years of massacres, have started to reproduce again.

Zakouma covers about 3000 sq km, and here we chose to to use a "total count" system, because elephants are often aggregated in one or two big herds and with a "sample" count there would be a big chance to miss the true number. The same situation applies for buffaloes, other very important species in Zakouma. 

The third most significant animal in the park is probably the giraffe, a subspecies known as G. c. antiquorum. The park has one of the largest populations of this subspecies. We also spotted several antelope species and ostriches that provided some additional excitement.

But, we were here mainly because of elephants, and it is always exciting to see them from the plane. They are used to planes flying over their heads, so they barely move when we pass over. It is very hot here, so from about 9 a.m. they are standing under the trees and don't move until the evening. It makes the counting more difficult, especially for the big herd.

In Zakouma, the majority of elephants stay together in one or two herds, plus few separate bulls. This behavior is likely caused by the stress from massive killings between 2006 and 2010. We hope they will start to slowly disperse into smaller family groups. One afternoon we saw just one elephant bull, alone, and then a small family group of 11 individuals. It was surprising, because they were far from the other elephants, near the Salamat river. There was a calf with them and because the herd was standing under the trees, very close to each other, we almost did not see it.  

The following day we found the big herd, which was split into three parts. The biggest group was more than 300 elephants; the others were smaller, all of them with calves. In general, the groups don't look like they have so many elephants and one can easily underestimate their number. We take pictures and examine the photographs later to get the right number.

Also, the elephants were in a high grass and we could not see calves easily, but later we counted 12 in all the groups. We also spotted a bull herd, 4 and 5 males just hanging around the village of Goz Djarat. They are accustomed to people and people are used to them.

It has been a good stretch and we haven't lost any elephants due to poaching in more than two years. While we were flying we spotted some of the old carcasses which reminded us how bad it can be.

The counting crew here has lots of experience in the area. Our pilot Jaime has been working in Zakouma for more than 1 year and knows the park very well. Satangar, the right seat observer, is one of the best observers I ever worked with, he can spot almost everything from the plane. Ahmat, the left seat observer, gained his experience during antipoaching flights in Zakouma.

Because we knew each other the work went smoothly, finishing the census here in 6 days. It was hot in our Cessna 182, with temperatures rising to 40C around midday, so we flew only early in the morning and late afternoon. During the middle of the day and in the evening I typed all the data into the computer, downloaded the GPS and backed-up everything in case something happens with our computer (not unusual in these conditions).

And since flying in the heat is hard work, a good siesta is an obligation.