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Over recent years several well-travelled, highly experienced safari operators and guides have told us that visiting Zakouma National Park in Chad was possibly the best wilderness experience they had had. And this from people who have spent time in many of Africa’s iconic wildlife reserves. With that recommendation, we simply had to go to see what the fuss was all about.

As our tiny Cessna 182 buzzes low over yellowing savannah and plum-red acacia gum trees, the pilot, Craig Reid, spots Africa’s most northerly elephant herd. Some 500 animals are sheltering within the safe embrace of spiny forest. A few highspirited youngsters cavort in the thermal Sahelian heat. “You wouldn’t have seen this a decade ago, particularly so many babies,” says Reid, referring back to when Zakouma’s elephants were being poached into oblivion.

Back then, Chad’s civil war raged and armed Janjaweed militias from Sudan flooded over the country’s unprotected eastern border to remorselessly poach Zakouma’s ivory. Between 2000 and 2010 the herd reduced by 90 per cent to roughly 400. Reid says the traumatised elephants were scarcely breeding and any babies born could be killed in panicked stampedes.

“Look at them now,” he enthuses above the whining engine. “About 10 per cent are youngsters and that’s a good sign for a healthy herd.” A recent census has revealed a steady recovery to around 590. Zakouma National Park’s borders are now so well protected the last elephant was poached in 2016.

Johannesburg-based African Parks is a non-profit conservation organisation that manages national parks across Africa, some in extreme unsettled environments like Chad. When they take over management they insist upon qualified autonomy and a twenty-year tenure. When handed Zakouma’s lock and keys in 2010 by Chad’s autocratic but wildlife-loving President Idriss Déby, poaching and overgrazing were rampant. During a week exploring this game-rich park I was to experience how African Parks has turned around Zakouma’s fortunes, but also see how their all-encompassing management style impacts upon local communities and the wider environment in their pursuit to protect wildlife.

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About Travel Africa

Our love for lions - why are they so captivating? • Reza Pakravan, crossing the Sahel • Lower Zambezi Valley accommodation guide • Planning the ultimate self-drive trip around Namibia • Route 62, in praise of Padstalle • Plus Botswana behind the pics; Family safaris; Tipping; Chimps in Tanzania; Zakouma; Uganda adrenaline and much more!