Chad is one of the poorest country’s in the world, with 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line. It’s suffered years of civil strife, and unrest in neighboring countries like Sudan often spills over and adds to the nation’s instability. To make matters worse, 200,000 refugees have fled the violence in Darfur and are now in Chad, further stressing the country’s capacity.
Against that backdrop of human tragedy, there’s another tragedy going on – the massive slaughter of Chad’s elephants. In the 1980s, Chad had perhaps about 20,000 elephants. Today, that number has declined by over 85 percent – to under 3,000 in the entire country.
There’s a massacre going on – and it’s happening fast. In the past year, about 250 elephants have been killed in Chad for their ivory. Zakouma National Park, in the southeastern part of the country and where the country’s elephants used to be concentrated, has suffered huge losses. In 2005, conservationists counted 3,885 elephants in the park. Today, that number is under 600. The situation is spiraling out of control. In a two-week period in February 2011, 20 elephants were poached in Chad for their ivory. All were killed outside of protected areas, making them easy targets. Stephanie Vergniault, founder and executive director of SOS Elephants in Chad, notes that if poaching continues at this rate, “not a single elephant will be alive in Chad in three years time.”
Vergniault is doing all she can to stop this trend. For example, SOS Elephants has developed a network of 100 to 200 local people who inform the NGO about poaching activity, including providing positions of poachers or elephants. The NGO can then alert Chadian government forces, (namely Mobile Forces of Protection of the Environment,) about the incidents. In fact, in mid-March 2011, government forces apprehended the poachers involved in the February incident. They also seized AK-47s, horses and 15 ivory tusks.
It’s a dangerous business. In these March arrests, two poachers were arrested and two killed. But sometimes, it’s the rangers who are not so lucky. For example, on May 15, 2007, three Chadian rangers were killed while protecting Chad’s national stockpile of ivory at Zakouma National Park, and in April 2010, poachers killed two Chadian soldiers in a single weekend.
A number of factors, like the use of sophisticated weapons and military tactics, suggest organized militias within Sudan or Somalia finance the poachers. Ivory sells for about $40 a kilo in Chad, a country where the average annual income is $530. That means one good tusk is worth a year’s wages, making it easy for these militia groups to recruit nomadic tribes or others as poachers. The ivory is then exported to more developed nations, like China.
WCS biologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Michael Fay points to the increased global acceptability of ivory as the reason for the dramatic increase in elephant poaching. Just in the last few years, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, has allowed several one-off sales of ivory stockpiles. “The world thinks it is okay to buy ivory again,” Fay said. But “anyone who thinks you can control ivory on the market is dreaming.”
While in some regions tourism might provide an economic alternative, in Chad the prospects are limited. That’s not just because of lack of development in the country, but because the elephants in Chad have become very aggressive. “They are used to poachers,” Vergniault says. “They have a good memory. To them, humans are bad.” Consequently, when an elephant in Chad sees someone from 100 meters away, it will charge. That not only hinders any future tourism, but it also scares farmers who are often right in the elephants’ path.
As a result, SOS Elephants works in rural areas teaching farmers about non-lethal alternatives, such as solar barriers or red pepper to discourage elephants from raiding crops and planting outside of migration corridors.
Vergniault also knows that changing public attitudes both towards elephants and towards ivory is the only way to stop the killing. Therefore, in addition to informing through traditional means, like workshops, SOS Elephants also spreads the word through sport. The NGO sponsors a soccer team, which acts as ambassadors for the elephants. It’s working. Now, more and more elephant teams are springing up in local villages spontaneously across the country.