How this conservation group is successfully fending off human threats in Africa’s degraded parks

The headquarters at Zakouma National Park, in southeastern Chad, is a sand-colored structure with a crenellated parapet that gives it the look of an old desert fortress. Outside the door to the central control room on the second floor hangs an image of a Kalashnikov rifle, circled in red, with a slash: No weapons allowed inside. Kalashnikovs are ubiquitous in Zakouma. All the rangers carry them. So do the intruders who come to kill wildlife.

Acacias shade the compound, Land Cruisers arrive and depart, and not many steps away, several elephants drink from a pool. Although the animals seem relaxed here, so close to the headquarters hubbub, they aren’t tame; they are wary but thirsty. Zakouma, a national park since 1963, has at times been a war zone for elephants. Fifty years ago, Chad as a whole may have had as many as 300,000, but from the mid-1980s that number declined catastrophically due to wholesale slaughter by well-armed poachers, until Zakouma became an uneasy refuge for the largest remnant, about 4,000 elephants.

Then, during the first decade of this century, more than 90 percent of Zakouma’s elephant population was butchered, mostly by Sudanese horsemen riding in from the east on paramilitary raids for ivory. (See “Ivory Wars: Last Stand in Zakouma,” National Geographic, March 2007.) These raiders are known as janjaweed, an Arabic word loosely translated as “devils on horseback,” though some ride camels. Their origins lie among nomadic Arab groups, highly skilled equestrians, who, once armed and supported by the Sudanese government, became ruthless strike forces during the conflict in Darfur and, later, freelance bandits lusting after ivory. For a while it seemed they might kill every elephant in Chad.

Then in 2010, at the invitation of the Chadian government, a private organization called African Parks (AP) took over management of Zakouma, and the trend came to a sudden stop. Founded in 2000 by a small group of conservationists concerned with such hemorrhagic losses of the continent’s wildlife, the nonprofit AP contracts with governments to restore and run national parks—with the stipulation that it will exercise full control on the ground. AP presently manages 15 parks in nine countries, bringing outside funding, efficient business practices, and rigorous law enforcement to some of Africa’s most troubled wild landscapes.

At Zakouma, law enforcement involves more than a hundred well-trained and well-armed rangers, mostly men but also women, deployed through a coordinated and strategically sophisticated operation. Leon Lamprecht, a South African who grew up in Kruger National Park, where his father was a ranger, is AP’s park manager of Zakouma.

“We are not a military organization,” Lamprecht said, while showing me a trove of weapons and ammunition in the armory, a locked shed on the ground floor of headquarters. “We are a conservation organization that trains our rangers for paramilitary.”

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