Face-to-face with an endangered giant


African Parks staff scramble to help an elephant who fell in a dangerous position. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

African Parks staff scramble to help an elephant who fell in a dangerous position. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

Marco Longari is an AFP photographer based in the Johannesburg bureau. He recently went on assignment to Chad to photograph the nation’s efforts to fight elephant poaching.

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By Marco Longari

JOHANNESBURG, March 3, 2014 -- Here in South Africa, we’re always running stories about poaching and wildlife conservation, but these sometimes lack compelling photos to illustrate them. So, when the conservation non-profit group African Parks called me up and offered the chance to travel to Chad to photograph their work, I was very keen to go.

The first part of the assignment was to photograph the burning of more than 1,000 kilos of ivory during a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Zakouma National Park, Chad's oldest such park.

Chadian President Idriss Deby lights the pyre. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

Chadian President Idriss Deby lights the pyre. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari) HERE

(AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

(AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

It was rather strange. President Idriss Deby was there and the atmosphere was festive, with people singing and dancing and cheering. But it was impossible to ignore what the pile of burning tusks signified. There’s the elephants, of course, but also the money the tusks represented for a country as poor as Chad, which has very little infrastructure. I think it was an extremely courageous political act, sending all that money up in flames.

The day before the burn, I’d seen park rangers handling the tusks. They seemed very respectful of the ivory and moved each piece, which had been carefully cataloged, with reverence and care. The guy in this picture knew many of the animals these tusks had come from. He was very sad and bitter. He said poachers make relatively small profits compared to the vast wealth reaped by the merchants who end up selling the ivory, usually on the insatiable Asian markets. The poachers lead such miserable lives for so little money, it all seems totally meaningless.

As recently as 2005, Chad had 4,000 elephants, but over the next five years that number plummeted to just 450.

A ranger with the Chadian Zakouma National Park on shows ammunition confiscated from poachers in the park. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A ranger with the Chadian Zakouma National Park on shows ammunition confiscated from poachers in the park. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A stockpile of inventoried ivory prior to the burning ceremony. February 20, 2014. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A stockpile of inventoried ivory prior to the burning ceremony. February 20, 2014. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A couple of days later, I accompanied conservationists as they set about finding elephants to tag with GPS-equipped collars. The devices will help people to understand how far the creatures roam and will help protect them from poachers. Sometimes elephants can roam for literally thousands of kilometres to other countries as they search for water.

South African conservationist and vet Pet Morkel carries his dart gun loaded with tranquilliser in Zakouma National Park on February 23, 2014. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

South African conservationist and vet Pet Morkel carries his dart gun loaded with tranquilliser in Zakouma National Park on February 23, 2014. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

The man who shot the elephant with a tranquiliser dart had to move very quietly. He took his shoes off to sneak to within range of the animal, then when he fired all hell broke loose with other elephants making a tremendous noise. The workers rushed to the animal’s aid to make sure it fell onto its side and not down onto its knees, which is dangerous for the elephant, then everyone moved quickly to get the collar on. It was the first time I’ve been so close to an elephant and I had to move quickly to make sure I wasn’t in anyone’s way. The whole operation only took about 15 minutes.

Workers push the elephant onto its side. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

Workers push the elephant onto its side. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

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I could smell the animal and, even though I was working fast, I remember wondering how on earth anyone could possibly want to kill such a beautiful creature just to take its tusks. It all seems so primitive and barbaric.

A member of the Zakouma National Park anti-poaching team on patrol. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

A member of the Zakouma National Park anti-poaching team on patrol. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

The collared elephant staggers to its feet after the tranquilizer wears off. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)

The collared elephant staggers to its feet after the tranquilizer wears off. (AFP Photo/Marco Longari)