National Geographic : 2007 Mar
endure the terror and despair? I have had a close bond with elephants since 1985, when I was doing research in the Dzanga clearing in the Central African Republic. I learned to speak their language-not literally, of course, but I feel as if I understand them. I know their habits, their personalities, their moods. I have laughed with elephants, and I have played their jousting game. Once, I almost died from tusk wounds inflicted by a frightened female on a beach in Gabon. After that, my African bush friends said, "Your blood is now part elephant blood." I also thought about the humans living in this area, their lives ravaged over centuries by the slave trade. In Zakouma, the Goula people built their villages near the rocky crags in the west of the park, in an attempt to escape mounted Arab and Ouaddian raiders, who savaged, captured, and sold them as slaves, decimating their num bers. I have seen contemporary savagery on the same scale in civil war in central Africa, where friends of mine were hunted, raped, starved, and killed. Yet their kids still played; their women still laughed. It is a sad fact that the vast majority of ele phants in southeastern Chad don't die of old age. They die at the hand of man. Yet when I meet the Zakouma elephants, all I see is joy. No rage or thirst for revenge-just a desire to protect their young. APRIL 21 I flew Luis to Am Timan so he could debrief Ahmat Hassan Djimet, governor of the Salamat region, about the passage of the rebels through Zakouma. Luis and the governor col laborate to preserve the park and maintain law and order in the region. Ahmat congratulated Luis for handling the rebel incursion so well -calming fears in the villages and communi cating effectively with the military and with him. He was unhappy to hear that some of the park's weapons and radios had been stolen, but Luis suggested that this was a small price to pay for no animal or human casualties. The governor said he would speak to President Deby about getting more arms and ammuni tion for Zakouma. 60 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . MARCH 2007 APRIL 24 We tagged along with Luis on a public relations pilgrimage to see Aboul Habib, the grand marabout of the Ouled Rachid Arabs nomads who, in the dry season, base themselves with their cattle at Andouma, a vital water hole just north of the park. Luis wanted a face-to face discussion with the man who had great influence over those who felt inclined to graze their livestock and hunt elephants, giraffes, and buffalo in the national park. The scene evoked medieval Arabia: hundreds of grass huts, orga nized by clan, occupied an expanse of short, green grass. A cloud of smoke hung over the clearing. Boys chased herds of goats; women collected water in clay pots in the shallows. Dogs barked. We passed a group of men with camels who looked as if they might have come from ancient Jerusalem. The grand marabout's grass palace was filled with men in robes thumbing prayer beads. They were tall, black, with fine features, and they greeted us with long salutations in Arabic. Luis sat in front of Aboul Habib, crowded by 30 clan members. The grand marabout wasted no time. He said that he knew that the plan was for Andouma to be annexed and incorporated into the park. Looking Luis in the eye with a paternal stare, he said, "If this happens, there will be death among men." Luis assured him repeat edly that Andouma would never be incorpo rated into Zakouma. But Aboul Habib had the example of history as evidence that Europeans do not always tell the truth. For the first 25 years of his life, Chad had been a French colony, won through warfare, assassinations, land grabs, and lies. Before the colonial era, his people had used the entire region as a dry season watering ground. Who could blame him for denying us his friendship and his tea? Having satisfied albeit uncomfortably-our objective to main tain contact and peace with the Ouled Rachid, we joined Aboul Habib in prayer, then left. APRIL 30 Back at the Salamat, the sky was a curtain of gray. Later that night, I was awakened by a thunderclap, followed by a rush of wind. Lightning creased the sky. As I emerged from my tent, a drop of water landed on my bare chest.