By David B. Rochford
Lying unconscious in the brush, the elephant’s massive rib cage rose and fell with each labored breath. With gleaming tusks the size of a human arm, his once alert eyes now stared blankly at the crowd of heavily armed soldiers and villagers surrounding him. Only minutes before, the young bull had been munching leaves with his herd, until he felt a sharp sting. Then nothing.
The sting that brought down this particular elephant was fired from a tranquilizer gun by a veterinarian as part of a coordinated team of specialists, wildlife experts, village elders and government ministers to track, tranquilize and fit one elephant in each herd with a GPS beacon collar. Once tagged, the elephant was revived and returned unharmed to his herd where his grazing and migration habits will be monitored allowing rangers and scientists to protect the entire group.
The process of collaring elephants is dangerous, complicated, uncertain and can take years of planning and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it underscores the success that is possible when creative officers and their locally employed (LE) staff colleagues build on a good idea, gain whole-of-Mission and Washington support, and persist until their idea becomes reality. Embassy N’Djamena prioritized elephant protection for years, especially for those roaming outside Chad’s best-known wildlife park, Zakouma National Park. The result is that one of Africa’s most vulnerable elephant populations is receiving unprecedented protection.
Seeing such a complex project to fruition is a daunting task, but supporting elephant protection programs in Chad responds directly to the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The strategy promotes overall goals of preventing species extinction, protecting biodiversity and preserving functioning ecosystems, all of which facilitate regional prosperity, stability and human health.
Since 2005, Chad has lost 95 percent of its native African elephants, primarily to poaching. In 2010, the government of Chad, working with development partners, particularly the European Union, undertook aggressive steps to combat poaching. These efforts have stabilized the population at approximately 1,000 animals nationwide.
Through an earlier project, in which the United States donated three trucks to facilitate ranger patrols inside Zakouma, the embassy’s commitment to elephant protection was well known. In 2016, Dr. Malachie Dolmia was a wildlife conservator and professor working for Chad’s Ministry of Environment. He approached then-Deputy Economic Officer Douglas Sun and LE staff members Jess Ramadjingar, Eric Loum and Djasra Ratebaye with a problem: Chad’s elephant herds living outside Zakouma were increasingly vulnerable to poaching and starvation as land cultivation and livestock grazing increased the competition for diminishing grassland and water. Cattle and crops were crowding out elephants, and herders and farmers viewed them as pests.
Embassy N’Djamena’s Political and Economic (Pol/Econ) team leaped into action by helping Dolmia develop a plan that would create a one-of-a-kind partnership among the Ministry of Environment, ecology students at the University of N’Djamena and Embassy N’Djamena. The proposed grant would facilitate students learning how to care for their environmental heritage under Dolmia, as they followed migration patterns and worked with rangers to protect elephants from human aggression. The two ranger trucks and 28 collars required for the project would cost $500,000—one of the largest single grants in recent embassy history.
The Pol/Econ team worked steadfastly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to overcome wildlife authorities’ initial skepticism about spending such a large sum on the non-Zakouma elephants given the limited availability of resources. They eventually won commitments from the Chadian government to step up protection efforts and partner with the embassy to keep elephants safe. Then-Pol/Econ Chief Amanda Cranmer gained front office support for the project early on, and the mission began advocating for the plan as a key part of its Integrated Country Strategy to protect Chad’s environment and boost lucrative tourism.
When Dolmia was reassigned to the Ministry of Education, the embassy had to reaffirm commitments and update the proposal, which was eventually awarded in 2017. The initiative became part of the Ecological Studies and Monitoring Project in Support of Anti-Poaching and Adaptive Management of Elephants in Chad (PRESELABE). PRESELABE is implemented through the University of N’Djamena and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Fisheries. The embassy facilitated the purchase of two more trucks from ranger patrols and 28 collars from Africa Wildlife Tracking in Pretoria, South Africa.
The collars and trucks were delivered in the summer of 2018, shortly after the new Pol/Econ Chief David Rochford arrived. The collars’ huge straps were mounted with a small computer and had to be kept in the open air for periodic calibration with satellites. With no other option to keep the valuable collars safe and in the open, the Pol/Econ team stored all 28 collars on the roof of the Marine house on the embassy compound until specialists from South Africa could deploy them months later. With resources finally in hand, the Pol/Econ team orchestrated a huge coordination effort between Washington, the Ministry of Environment, local communities and the embassy’s RSO shop and front office.
After years of embassy planning, Deputy Chief of Mission Chahrazed Sioud and the Embassy N’Djamena Environmental Team departed in the pre-dawn light, April 17, for the grueling drive into Chad’s sparse bush terrain. After hours of jolting travel over rough paths, they arrived at the village of Grédaya, near Lake Chad, and met the team of South African specialists who would attach the first collar. A crowd of Chadian officials from the Ministries of Environment and Education, the governor of the Hadjer-Lamis Region and local villagers followed from a distance as the team tracked a herd and isolated a young bull elephant. Deftly shooting the elephant with a tranquilizer dart, the team moved in quickly after the elephant fell unconscious.
“We have about 20 minutes to get the collar on,” noted Dr. Pete Morkel, a wildlife consultant for Africa Parks, as he and his team labored to maneuver the collar around the elephant’s massive neck and strapped it firmly in place. Once secured, he and Sioud administered the antidote to the tranquilizer directly behind the elephant’s ear.
Less than a minute later, the elephant awoke groggily, stood up, shook his head and rejoined his now-protected herd as the embassy team and Chadian partners retreated to a safe distance. Minister of Environment Sidick Abdelkerim Haggar took the opportunity to thank the embassy for supporting Chad’s efforts to protect natural resources and empowering Chadians to educate each other about the importance of their rich biological heritage.
But perhaps one of the greatest rewards for the embassy team was realizing the success of a multiyear project thanks to the sustained efforts of Mission Chad and its local partners.
“What excites me the most is that this project will enable us to gather data on the unmanaged, unprotected elephant herds to protect them from poachers, ensure the herds’ health and address human-elephant conflict,” said Sun. “Saving these elephants is just morally the right thing to do.”
David B. Rochford is a political officer at Embassy Chad.