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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2007, 04:44 GMT 05:44 UK
Tourists brave Chad's wild territory
Lions in Zakouma National Park

By Stephanie Hancock
BBC News, Zakouma National Park

Chad may not seem like an obvious tourist destination, with the spillover of the Darfur conflict from Sudan and regular clashes between rebels and government soldiers.

But Chad's best-known - and some would say only - tourist destination is growing in popularity with foreign visitors.

It's a dangerous life but one we've accepted
Nicolai Taloua
Anti-poaching ranger

Zakouma National Park, in the far south well away from the troubles in the east, is becoming something of a Mecca for adventurous travellers.

Wildlife connoisseurs say it is one of the very best places in Africa to view elephants and the fact that it is off the beaten track only adds to the allure.

It is certainly not easy to get to: an 11-hour drive along bumpy dirt tracks may deter the faint-hearted, but the journey is worth it in the end.

Zakouma is practically virgin territory: it is not unusual to be one of just two or three tourists in the entire park, with 3,000 sq km of truly wild territory all to oneself.

Massive herds

Luis Arranz, a Spaniard who has been running Zakouma for six years, admits it can be hard drawing in the crowds when media coverage of Chad is dominated by violence.

An elephant in Zakouma National Park
In the last year, more than 200 elephants have been killed

"It's a big problem because there are lots of Europeans who've only read about war and Darfur spreading into Chad, so people don't think of coming here for their holiday," he says.

"But recently people have started to talk about Zakouma. If the situation stays calm, I think people will continue coming."

The real reason people come to Zakouma is for the elephants.

In the rainy season, when elephants begin to leave the park to avoid the muddy terrain, it is possible to see truly massive herds - sometimes up to 1,000 elephants at a time.

Unfortunately, like many things in Chad, there is a darker side to the picture.

The elephant population here is under threat from ivory poachers.

No ban

In the past 12 months, more than 200 elephants have been killed in and around the park, many gunned down in large groups by poachers who attack on horse- and camel-back.

Giraffe in Zakouma National Park
Poachers have begun to kill giraffes, as people like to make bracelets out of giraffe tails to give to their wives
Luis Arranz
The park employs 80 anti-poaching rangers to deal with the attackers, but it is a bloody and never-ending challenge.

Earlier this year, three of the park's guards were killed in a shoot-out with poachers.

"It's a dangerous life but one we've accepted," says Nicolai Taloua, head of Zakouma's anti-poaching team. "We've chosen this fight and will continue to the end."

The reason for the recent upsurge in elephant killings is that some African countries -Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia - can now legally sell ivory, despite a worldwide ban elsewhere.

Chad enforces the ivory ban, but as long as an ivory trade exists, demand in the region continues.

"A few years ago the ivory trade was banned and poaching decreased," explains Mr Arranz.

"But recently some African countries struck a deal to export ivory to Japan and since then we've seen an increase in poaching.

"People know Zakouma is famous for elephants so that's a problem for us."

'It's a war'

Dotted around the park is evidence of the poachers' handiwork: carcasses of elephants lie rotting, with their faces brutally hacked off in a bid to remove their tusks.

Villagers are encouraged to go on safari

Recently other animals such as giraffes and buffalos have been targeted too.

"Poachers have begun to kill giraffes, as people like to make bracelets out of giraffe tails to give to their wives," says Mr Arranz.

"It's ridiculous. They are trying to kill off all the animals not because of necessity, but because someone wants a little ivory statue or a piece of jewellery."

"Maybe they don't know how many animals' lives this cost, or how many people died as well," he continues.

"Really, it's a war. And people who buy ivory are causing this war."

To help in the battle against the ivory trade, the park is trying to keep local villagers onside, not only to better relations but also to encourage people to report sightings of poachers.

As well as building wells and health centres in the area, European Union cash is being used to take villagers on safari trips into the park, where they become bona fide tourists for the day.

Body of a dead elephant
The park employs 80 anti-poaching rangers

"It really helps for villagers to see the wildlife," says Bachir, one of the tour guides.

"Sometimes they are ignorant about the park. But now they are developing a conscience about the animals and are learning what the park can do for them."

Mr Arranz says the project also helps break down misconceptions.

"Locals always had this idea that the park was built by whites, for whites," he says.

"But one day we will all leave and this park will be theirs to look after, and that's what we want to show."

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