“If everyone’s stomachs are up to it, we can go see the elephants,” said Rian Labuschagne, his voice crackling through my aviation headset.
Receiving the thumbs-up from his three passengers, Mr. Labuschagne, who was then manager of Zakouma National Park in Chad, steered the fixed-wing Cessna C180 toward a spot 12 miles south. Earlier that morning, his rangers had spotted the elephants there.
It was precisely these elephants that had drawn me to this remote Central African park. Although few Westerners have heard of it, Zakouma is home to one of the most stunning conservation success stories in Africa. Unchecked poaching had previously rendered the protected area a near war zone: as rebel factions attempted to overthrow the government from 2005 to 2010, poachers took advantage of the country’s lawless state to massacre 90 percent of the park’s elephants. But after taking over Zakouma’s management in 2011, Mr. Labuschagne and his team transformed it into a rare safe haven for Africa’s imperiled elephants.
“If you look at the Central and West African savannas, elephants have almost been exterminated — their populations are just being lost nonstop,” said Chris Thouless, the director of the Elephant Crisis Fund at Save the Elephants, a nonprofit organization based in Kenya. “Zakouma, however, is an outstanding exception.”
I nervously gripped the seat as drafts of warm air tossed the tiny, dated vessel to and fro. But the scenery below was well worth the nerve-racking ride. We passed over an 850-strong herd of buffalo, smoky dust trailing in their wake, and sent a seemingly endless procession of crocodiles slithering into the murky Salamat River. In an adjacent wetland, several hundred pink pelicans took flight like cherry blossom petals in the wind, making me momentarily forget my nausea and angle for a better view.
Ten minutes later, the elephants came into view. Too numerous to count, they were congregated in and around a narrow, latte-brown channel in the Salamat. Some had their strawlike trunks stuck into the water, others were simply cooling off in the knee-deep mud. Babies — adorable in their ungainliness — playfully splashed around their elders’ feet.
As we circled overhead, Mr. Labuschagne pointed to still more elephants streaming through the scrubby forest to join their families and friends at the water. “When we first came here, flying over, we could still see white bones everywhere marking the massacre sites,” he said. “Now, the elephant population is going up.”
Made up of more than 500 animals, the Zakouma herd is one of the largest surviving in Central Africa. That elephants still exist here at all comes as a shock to many experts. The park’s population, Dr. Thouless said, “was just in free fall.”
“People just couldn’t get a grip on the poaching, and the expectation was that the population was going to go the way that everywhere else was — obliteration,” he said.
Starting in 2002, heavily armed poachers on horseback, many from Sudan, relentlessly stormed the park, reducing the elephant population to just over 400 from 4,000 in less than a decade. “In my time in Zakouma, I lost seven rangers killed by poachers, and we twice received visits from the rebels,” said Luis Arranz, who served as the park manager from 2001 to 2007. “All the difficulties came from the poachers, who were ready for everything — to kill and to die for ivory.”
Everyone assumed the animals were doomed.
But the president of Chad, Idriss Deby — a longtime advocate for his country’s wildlife — was not willing to give up on Zakouma’s elephants. He began exploring the possibility of bringing in African Parks, a South Africa-based nonprofit organization that specializes in managing and rehabilitating failing protected areas, to take over Zakouma’s management. But immediately, his government advisers opposed the move.
Dolmia Malachie, the coordinator of Chad’s National Elephant Action Plan, said he was at first opposed to the African Parks model of doing things — especially of handing control of the park over to a foreign group. “I was able to convince everyone in the ministry that we would not give Zakouma to African Parks,” he said.
But in 2010 — ignoring Dr. Malachie and others — Mr. Deby handed over Zakouma’s reins to the foreign nonprofit. Although Mr. Deby — who has been in power since 1990 — has a concerning track record in terms of human rights abuses and corruption, conservationists generally regard him as an ally. “The key thing is he’s allowed African Parks to save Zakouma, and has also given them a management agreement for a new area in the north,” said Dr. Thouless, referring to Ennedi, a 15,000-square mile Unesco World Heritage Site signed over to African Parks in February. “That is a sign of commitment.”
Shortly after Mr. Deby made his decision, Mr. Labuschagne and his wife, Lorna, who are originally from South Africa, were brought in to direct efforts in Zakouma. They quickly set to work modernizing the park’s communication center and facilities; weeding out corrupt staff; training and better equipping the rangers; and building stronger relationships with local communities around the park.
“What the Labuschagnes put in here was absolutely groundbreaking,” said Leon Lamprecht, Zakouma’s current manager. “They’ve gotten numerous awards both here and internationally for their work.”
Even Dr. Malachie was quickly won over: “When Rian came, he did a fantastic job,” he said. “I don’t know of any other park manager who has been able to do as great a job as he did.”
Things could have fallen apart in 2012, however, when a catastrophic poaching attempt claimed the lives of six rangers. But rather than give up, the Labuschagnes doubled down on their efforts. “When it was finalized and we knew that they were dead, we had to go to each family and tell them — it was very, very difficult,” Mr. Labuschagne said. “But we used that incident to argue for better communication equipment and for better arms and ammunition, because we knew this could potentially happen again.”
They also formed a team of anti-poaching rangers called the Mambas, who quickly took to the job. “The Chadian mind-set is very proud, very effective and no nonsense,” Mr. Lamprecht said. “If you take that kind of brave, strong person who doesn’t easily give up and you give him the necessary training to do the job, you then have a very good ranger.”
At the same time, the Labuschagnes also began inviting people from surrounding villages to visit — including around 5,000 children annually — for free educational overnight safaris. “The mistake most parks make is they don’t allow the local population to come in for nothing or for a very small amount,” Ms. Labuschagne said. “We felt it was more important to get people here than to get a park fee out of them.”
Because of the park’s heightened security and the increasing support of surrounding communities, Zakouma has not suffered a confirmed poaching incident since January 2016. After a several-year stretch with very few births, the elephant population has once again begun growing, and six black rhinos arrived this month from South Africa. A critically endangered species, black rhinos became extinct in Chad in 1990 when the last animals were poached for their valuable horns.
“For Chad, the arrival of black rhinos means that the international community is respecting the security we can provide, and is therefore happy to send rhinos here,” Mr. Lamprecht said.
To make way for all the new arrivals, in October 2017, African Parks signed an agreement with the Chadian government to take over management of the neighboring Siniaka Minia Faunal Reserve, adding over 1,700 square miles to Zakouma’s existing 1,100 square miles. The expansion was necessary to safely accommodate the quickly growing elephant population, which is expected to hit the 1,000-animal mark by 2024.
As the situation on the ground continues to improve, tourism will play an increasingly important role in Zakouma’s recovery. “Chad” and “tourism” are not words that usually go together, however. A State Department travel advisory warns of land mines, suicide bombers and bandits, and the country shares borders with volatile neighbors, including parts of Nigeria that are strongholds of the terrorist group Boko Haram. I was warned by several concerned friends and family that I risked being kidnapped if I dared to follow through on my travel plans.
“Chad is an extremely unstable place, and always has been,” said John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for African policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. “Visiting Chad is not like visiting South Africa, and Americans should be very careful if they choose to go there.”
That said, he continued, traveling to places like Zakouma is not really on the same level as visiting much of the rest of Chad. Visitors are whisked from the airport to the national park, and once there, they are guarded by well-trained rangers and supportive local communities who act as eyes and ears on the ground.
“It’s going to be less risky because you’re talking essentially about people in a bubble,” Dr. Campbell said. “What they’re doing is visiting a park that is organized and run by outsiders supported by outside money.”
Mr. Lamprecht said that, at the moment, the situation in Chad is stable. While that could always change, for now his goal is for tourism to eventually contribute up to 50 percent of the park’s operational income. “If we were pessimistic, we would never get anything done,” he said.
Others are also betting on Chad’s increasing appeal among a certain set of adventure- and novelty-seeking travelers. “Watch this space, because I think Chad is going to be a very interesting place to visit in the coming years,” said Ben Simpson, a pilot and guide with Tropic Air, a Kenya-based helicopter safari company that began offering trips to Zakouma and greater Chad earlier this year. “The government is very receptive and keen to bring in tourism, and we’re certainly going to continue planning these trips so more people can get out and see Chad.”
The Labuschagnes — who moved to Tanzania in February 2017 after six years at Zakouma — first laid the foundations for visitors at Zakouma by creating Camp Nomade, a luxury safari camp, and the first of its kind in Chad. As Nomade’s name suggests, its aesthetics match those of the surrounding nomadic communities, and the camp is also mobile, allowing it to move with the wildlife on the Rigueik floodplain — “one of the most beautiful places in Zakouma, and busiest in terms of birds and game,” said Matthieu Radot, the camp’s current manager.
Camp Nomade is not cheap, but that has not stopped it from selling out since opening in 2015. (A stay there runs a steep $5,500 per person for seven nights, not including chartered flights from N’Djamena.)
I had the opportunity to overnight at Camp Nomade with Mr. and Ms. Labuschagne in January 2017. I was immediately struck by the careful attention paid to even the subtlest details. Hand-woven grass fences surrounding the kitchen and en suite bathrooms made the camp blend in with the scrub and trees on the edge of the floodplain, while carpets and leather sourced from artisans throughout the country gave the cozy, open-air common area a distinctly Chadian feel. My home for the night — a modest but comfortable walk-in tent that provided an unbroken view of sprawling wilderness — was sewn by local seamstresses.
“The biggest goal was not to have Nomade look like those commercial projects you see in Southern Africa,” said Jamie Sparks, who was the camp manager when I visited, and who left the job so she could write a cookbook-cum-memoir about her time in Zakouma. “Everything here was produced at Zakouma or around Chad.”
The menu, likewise, is distinctly Chadian — albeit with Moroccan and Libyan flair, and with wine imported from France. At dinner I could not stop gorging on the homemade bread that Ms. Sparks baked that afternoon and served alongside a rich mutton and fresh vegetable stew perfumed with cinnamon, turmeric, harissa and Senegalese pepper. But that didn’t prevent me from going for seconds on dessert, a cloud-light chocolate mousse flavored with dried ginger and other spices sourced from the local market. As we chatted at an open-air table under the stars and a fat, bright moon, we were interrupted by the occasional buffalo bellow from somewhere in the darkness.
By day, there is no shortage of exploring to be done. Zakouma’s famous elephants are always a game drive highlight; after spotting the herd from the air, I was lucky enough to be able to take a walking safari to see them up-close on my first day in the park. We heard them before we saw them — deep chortling and growling sounds coming from the thick brush. Quietly and ever so slowly approaching them, with the Labuschagnes in the lead, we were able to watch adults and several babies enjoying a late afternoon lunch of leaves and grass, not 50 feet away.
The elephants, however, are not the only draw. Visitors can also view herds of buffalo and tiang — a type of antelope — in numbers rarely seen elsewhere, and the park hosts an estimated 950 Kordofan giraffes — almost half of the world’s remaining population of that imperiled subspecies. Lions, cheetahs and leopards may be spotted during the day, while night brings out a parade of smaller carnivores, including serval, genets, civets, pale foxes and honey badgers.
Zakouma is also a birder’s wonderland, boasting nearly 400 species, including migrants from both the northern and southern hemispheres. I was treated to an aerial display of awe-inspiring proportions on my last evening there as spur-winged geese, black crowned cranes and millions of red-billed quelea came in to roost, filling the sky like animated confetti.
“The best word to describe what makes Zakouma so special is ‘abundance,’” said Stuart Slabbert, African Parks’ conservation-led economic development manager. “You’ll see four or five lion prides on one drive, a couple hundred endangered giraffes and birds in the millions.”
Sightings of any given species are not a guarantee, however — a fact that only contributes to Zakouma’s sense of discovery. I did not see any big cats while I was there, for example, but a group that arrived days before me saw several. “In South Africa, the rangers know where the game is and you know you’re going to see your Big Five,” said Josh Iremonger, a Botswana-based private guide who often leads tours in Zakouma. “But at Zakouma you do feel like you’re on this expedition and you don’t know what you’re going to see.”
Because Chad remains one of the least-visited nations in the world, visitors are also rewarded by an entire park virtually to themselves. When Mr. Iremonger leads groups there, he often goes days without seeing another vehicle, save for those of the rangers and of locals passing through on public roads. “Whereas if you go to the Maasai Mara or to the Serengeti or to certain parts of Botswana, it’s going to be chockablock with vehicles,” he said.
Yet getting to Zakouma is easier than you might expect: I flew Air France directly from Paris to Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, and African Parks arranges chartered flights from there.
Once on the ground, guests often pursue specific interests such as photography or birding, or they may simply be lured in by the promise of a destination largely unexplored, Ms. Sparks said. Virtually all, however, are passionate about wildlife conservation.
For such people, Zakouma is not only an ideal destination for its inspiring story and the animal-viewing opportunities it offers, but also for a chance to directly support such endeavors. Following a core principle of the African Parks model, all visitor profits go toward park management and projects in local communities, including building schools.
The plan is to increase those profits by broadening Zakouma’s international appeal and accessibility through Tinga Camp, a less exclusive but more affordable option than Camp Nomade, priced at $135 to $145 per night. Its 24 rooms, including ones suitable for hosting families, will receive a complete makeover in 2018. “We’re trying to open the doors to Chad for more and more people,” Ms. Sparks said. “You’ll get an incredible trip, and you’ll be helping the elephants.”
One morning during my stay at Tinga Camp, I enjoyed my coffee on an elevated porch just feet from two male elephants grazing in the bushes before me. As the 13,000-pound animals stripped branches from trees and munched absent-mindedly on leaves, the few other tourists staying there — a group from the United States embassy, escaping N’Djamena for a long weekend — gathered to snap photos. It suddenly struck me just how drastically the elephants’ world has changed in the last few years. People — formerly their hunters and killers — are now their protectors and saviors.
This fact did not appear to be lost on the elephants: relaxed and accommodating, they seemed content to share their space with us.
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