On my first morning on safari in Chad, I trip up in an elephant’s footprint. The crater, 40cm wide and 20cm deep, is imprinted in granite-hard earth outside my tent. My stumble sends a flock of white-faced whistling ducks lifting from the nearby lake into the air, leaving the surface quivering before it settles into a mirror again, ready for a splay-legged giraffe on the bank to resume drinking.

It is January 13, and I’m the first guest at Camp Nomade, a new mobile safari camp in Zakouma National Park, a 3,500 sq km enclave in the southeast of the country, a three-hour flight from the capital, N’Djamena. The wet season’s waters, which make this region impenetrable from July to November, have retreated, the pans and riverine veins that crosshatch the flatlands gradually disappearing in the heat. Today the only evidence of floods are these giant’s footsteps, depicting where the herd once came to drink, but, in May, the rains will come again.

Zakouma’s elephant herd is one of the largest left in Africa and is the obvious main attraction, though the park is also home to buffalo, leopard, lion and abundant bird life. Yet the seasonality makes Chad a tough sell in Africa’s competitive safari market, as does the country’s recent history. Only three years after the park was established in 1963, a guerrilla war broke out that lasted three decades. Civil conflict rumbled on into the new millennium, compounded by the Darfur refugee crisis and conflict with neighbouring Sudan. Neither does its position look good on the geopolitical map: Chad is bordered by Libya to the north, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon to the west, the Central African Republic to the south, and Sudan to the east.

Figures from the UN World Tourism Organisation show that just 18,000 people took a holiday in Chad in 2013, making it one of the world’s least-visited nations. The US state department warns against visiting parts of the country (the UK Foreign Office advises against “all but essential travel” anywhere in Chad) but, on the ground in Zakouma, it is easy to stop thinking about the wider region’s troubles and to focus more on the landscape in which I’m immersed.

It’s a place few outsiders ever see, where lonely inselbergs emerge on the horizon like forbidden lands in a fairy tale; where bowing fig trees bloom in empty desert dust and where the air is filled with the thunderous din of pelicans taking flight.

With each passing hour I feel safer, my security concerns laid to rest by the complete absence of other people. Camp Nomade is only the second accommodation to open in Zakouma and is far more elegant than its predecessor, the government-built $100-a-night Tinga Lodge, which opened in 1965 and sleeps 48 in simple riverside bandas.

Still, the lack of footfall has its drawbacks. Looking for elephants, we can’t rely on a confluence of guide sightings to tip us off. We use Zakouma’s anti-poaching technology instead, comprising GPS co-ordinates beamed from 11 collared elephants, with the data monitored around the clock by radio operators at the park’s headquarters. To help our search, we’re assisted by a small plane piloted by Rian Labuschagne, the park’s director since 2011, working alongside his wife, Lorna.

Chad map

The snap of broken undergrowth overpowers the hum of the Cessna as our Land Cruiser advances through golden swathes of sun-torched grass. Baboons scatter; sapphire-breasted Abyssinian rollers hold their ground. Labuschagne’s broad South African accent crackles over the radio; he can see the herd, including elephant bulls fringing the main group. It is under his instruction that we approach from downwind, proceeding cautiously through trees with copper skins.

If elephants have memories, then those in Chad have more reason than most to fear humans. La Chasse Oubliée, a 1989 book by Jean-Luc Temporal, describes hunters in Chad pursuing elephants on horseback, carrying long spears with 40cm-long, leaf-shaped heads. In response to centuries of execution — with a violent upsurge when machine guns replaced spears — Zakouma’s herds developed a unique social response. “They bunch together into tight balls,” says Labuschagne, “like sardines under attack from sharks.”

“In 2005, there were 3,885 elephants in Zakouma. Now there are 460,” says Darren Potgieter, Zakouma’s South African-born field operations manager, who was brought in by African Parks, a non-profit organisation overseeing 5.9m hectares of wilderness in seven African countries. AP has managed Zakouma for Idriss Déby’s Chadian administration since 2010, and the following year the European Union pledged €6.9m, spread over five years, to help conservation efforts in the park.

For the first time in a decade, Zakouma’s elephant numbers are now going up; the ambition is to get the population to 1,000 by 2025. This upward curve is not true, however, of the region at large. In the first three months of 2012 in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park, 650 elephants were massacred in a series of attacks.

“In the 1970s, 300,000 elephant moved through contiguous territory, linking northern DRC with a little bit of Sudan, northern Central African Republic and southern Chad,” says Malachie Dolmia, a scientist who now runs the Chad Elephant Project, inaugurated last month. “In Chad we now have around 14 pockets of known herds left. Our estimates put the total national population at around 1,000 elephants or less. Unfortunately, we have very little knowledge of the trans-boundary populations, which are at extreme risk.”

We penetrate deeper into the bush, and I hear it for the first time: the trumpeting pitch, like the creak of the Earth’s crust. In a small clearing emerges a phalanx of steel skins lined up like shields. Their wide heads face us — about 40 elephants in view, with many more implied in the rustle of feet. The herd’s physical presence is ordered; an intelligent silence resonates through their ranks, including the young, which stand between tall legs. “This makes everything worthwhile,” says Potgieter. “When I first came into Zakouma, we weren’t seeing calves.” At least 23 were born in 2013, with 20 newborns in 2014.

“Zakouma is the turnround story that’s eluding conservationists all over Africa,” says Michael Lorentz, a leading African safari guide who visited for the second time last May. Lorentz is why I’m here: I couldn’t get his descriptions out of my head — the riverbanks turned into honeycombs by millions of nesting northern carmine bee-eaters, the hullabaloo of 5,000-plus black crowned cranes. From other sources, I then got wind of Zakouma’s growing reputation in powerful philanthropic circles.

Ronald Ulrich, chairman of African Parks Foundation America and a former managing director of Morgan Stanley, bankrolled Zakouma’s plane. James Coleman, an American industrialist, donated the funding to develop Zakouma’s new mobile camp (100 per cent of its income goes back to conservation). “Zakouma is such an exotic landscape. There’s quite simply nothing else like it,” says Coleman. “People need to see it for themselves, and understand the challenges it has overcome.”

But, as Labuschagne concedes, “Chad has no history of a safari industry”, which is what makes Camp Nomade such a significant calling card. It turns out to be as chic as the finest east African equivalent but with site-specific soul rather than the usual colonial clichés. The accommodation comprises eight tents with all four sides netted to expose the landscape. There is a mess tent laden with rugs from Libya, leather pouffes, lanterns and nomadic camel bells. The exceptional food — guava-sweetened quinoa and wood-roasted tagines — is the best safari cuisine I’ve come across anywhere. We visit nomadic “ferricks” — camps carried on the backs of camels and oxen as they move from place to place — where the women show me their dowry beads and the men their spears. We visit schools and go to the weekly market in Kach-Kacha, just outside the park boundary, where nomads trade in goats, camels, cattle and Islamic prayer beads. We talk around the fire late into the night, our exposure to Zakouma’s conservation teams revealing the other side of a story that not long ago was soaked in blood.

In 2007, seven Zakouma guards were killed, and four more between 2008 and 2010. In 2012, six guards were gunned down in cold blood while praying at first light — a reprisal killing by Sudanese ivory hunters whose camp had been raided by Zakouma’s anti-poaching squad. “In Mozambique, you come face to face with a poacher, and they drop the ivory and run. In Zakouma, the killers are completely fearless. They stand you down,” says Potgieter. The AP teams, trained by a French security specialist, have proved equal to the challenge. Since 2011, no ivory has left the park.

Under Labuschagne’s leadership, poaching is being strangled by concentric rings of protection, which operate year-round (before AP’s involvement, the poachers would come in on horseback in the wet season when security was low). Three elite rapid-reaction teams operate at a clandestine level, moving at night. There are four teams of horse-mounted patrols, with two or three operating at any one time, endeavouring to keep within 7km of the elephant herds. Motorbike patrols work the park’s peripheries for intelligence.

Labuschagne now wants to secure a new area, Siniaka-Minia (already a national reserve) and the buffer zone in between, to create space for Zakouma’s elephants. A bigger, safer range will also allow for the reintroduction of wild dogs and even rhino, planned for April. “Come spring, Zakouma will be the closest ‘Big Five’ park to Europe,” says Labuschagne.

As well as the elephants, cats are beginning a recovery too. Zakouma’s lion population, more closely related to the Asiatic lion than the African, is estimated at around 130, and going up, in spite of Nigeria’s appetite for the animals’ bones and claws. Around half of the world’s last remaining 2,400 Kordofan giraffe are in Zakouma; populations are rising, again in spite of a tradition among nomads for turning their tails into necklaces.

Perhaps it’s this tradition of killing that makes the wildlife skittish; perhaps it’s because the animals are not used to safari vehicles. Then at night, it’s all change, and the numbers come to life. We watch servals hunt for catfish. We follow a pride of lions with a cub a few weeks old. On our last evening, we stop by the Salamat river and shine a torch: a thousand silver eyes glint back in the beam.

Rather than fear, I feel the infinite possibilities of this place, even in the hooded blink of crocodiles staring at me through the night. I realise then I have been completely seduced — by the optimism Zakouma represents, and the wild immensity of a maligned place. I hate crocodiles; I find it difficult listening to the rangers’ stories of horrors past. Yet Chad is somewhere I know I’ll be coming back to. I’ve fallen in love, though not so blindly to believe there aren’t shadows still lurking in the grass.

Slideshow photographs: Tom Parker

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