The remarkable reimagining of Zakouma National Park

The story of Zakouma is an unlikely tale of a park rising from the ashes and one of the most spectacular transformations in all of Africa.
Written by Matthew Sterne
21 April 2021

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Chad’s oldest and most important national park, Zakouma, used to be where French colonials came for trophy hunting, rivalling even Kenya for its bounty. It was spoken of, by those in the know, with hushed awe and longing.

Chad Map

With the Sahara to the north and the fertile rainforest regions of Central Africa to the south, it was well-positioned as the primary safe haven for Central and West African wildlife, commanding near legendary status throughout Africa for its abundant wildlife and raw wilderness.

Then civil and military unrest rocked the country. 

The wetland area of Rigueik Pan arguably offers some of the best birding opportunities in Africa. Source | Kyle de Nobrega

From the eighties onwards, Chad’s instability brought in poachers. Zakouma’s elephant population declined sharply, plunging from 20,000 in the seventies to just a few thousand in 2002. Between 2002 and 2010, poachers on horseback ransacked the park, decimating its natural resources while stirring fear and insecurity in local communities. In total, 4,000 elephants – 95% of Zakouma’s population – were slaughtered for their ivory in this eight-year period. Rhino disappeared entirely, and revenue from horn and ivory sales was used to fund armed conflict in the region.

Due to the larger species of elephants being wiped out from poaching, the current elephants in Zakouma are below average in size. Conservationists are hoping this will change in time. Source | Kyle de Nobrega

 

The introduction of African Parks

In 2010, the park’s trajectory shifted when the Chadian government invited African Parks (a non-profit organisation that operate 19 parks across the continent) to sign a long-term agreement to restore and manage Zakouma before it was too late. African Parks began overhauling law enforcement, providing expert training and creating communication networks. 

In 2012, just as Zakouma was restoring security to the park, a patrol of seven rangers discovered a poachers’ camp in the park, and waited overnight for them to return. But as they carried out their morning prayers at first light, the poachers gunned them down execution-style.

Following the attack, additional bases were built, a second aircraft was purchased, VHF radios were installed so community members could contact the control room at any time and a rapid response team called the “Mambas” was formed to enhance security. Large donations came in from the EU and, because of the manpower needed to help manage the park, local employment grew, making Zakouma National Park the largest employer in the region. 

The Kordofan giraffe is a subspecies of giraffe found in northern Cameroon, southern Chad and Central African Republic. Source | Kyle de Nobrega

 

The spectacular transformation of Zakouma

Due to these efforts, poaching has been practically eliminated since 2010 with only 24 known elephants poached in the last decade. For the first time in many years, the elephants began to breed and could raise their young. Their population now exceeds 559 individuals. In 2018, 127 elephant calves under the age of five were counted; in 2011 only one was seen. 

Visitors can now see large herds of up to a thousand Central African savannah buffalo, Kordofan giraffe (the park holds 50% of the remaining 2,000 left in the wild), black-crowned cranes, roan antelope, Lelwel hartebeest and the threatened red-fronted gazelle buffalo. Notable predators here now include cheetah, leopard, spotted hyena and more than 130 lions. The park’s buffalo population was reduced to about 220 animals in 1986 but now numbers over 12,000.

Night drives often reveal serval cat, civet, African wild cat, hyena and the pale fox. Some 373 species of birds have been recorded here, with notable species including the Abyssinian ground hornbills, black-breasted barbets, northern carmine bee-eaters and red-billed queleas.

373 bird species have been recorded in the park. Source | Kyle de Nobrega

A snapshot of Zakouma today

In an article for The Telegraph titled, ‘The legendary national park you’re not supposed to visit’, travel journalist Michelle Jana Chan describes her first night in Zakouma. ‘We set up camp in front of the wetland area of Rigueik Pan. I have been on many safaris, but the abundance of birdlife here was something I had never witnessed before. While 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 air was filled with croaking, chirruping, the clacking of bills, urgent quacking and low trills. The concentration was astonishing, the bands of birdlife so dense I could hardly distinguish the outlines of individuals.’ 

These days, Zakouma is home to over 130 lions. Source | Anita Mishra

 

When is the best time to visit Zakouma?

For five months of the year, Zakouma is drenched and pretty intolerable, meaning it’s only open to visitors in the dry season (mid-November to the end of May) when the area turns from waterlogged to lush and green. The best time to visit is March and April, when the animals congregate around watering holes. 

Zakouma has three tiers of accommodation available in the park, with Tinga Camp offering traditional safari activities and very reasonable prices and Camp Nomade a high-end mobile safari camp. A trip to Zakouma can be combined with a visit to Ennedi Massif, a water-rich desert landscape home to fascinating rock formations. Get in touch to find out more about this itinerary.

Thanks to effective anti-poaching techniques by Africa Parks management, elephant numbers are recovering, there are a large number of new births in the herd and the elephants are dispersing rather than staying together all the time for protection. Source | Africa Parks
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