A conservation success story, Zakouma National Park is back from the brink under the solid management of African Parks working alongside the Chadian government. Poaching has been practically eliminated in the park and the elephant population is on the rise for the first time in 10 years. Zakouma is one of the most inspirational and surprising conservation success stories in Africa.
Zakouma is 3,000 sq km of pure abundance, the sky is constantly moving with birdlife, the pans and grasslands are teeming with mammals and the river is choc-a-block with crocodiles. It is unlike any other National Park we have visited and is a truly remote, wild and special place.
It was just over a two hour flight from N’Djamena in a 12 seater Cessna Caravan, passing huge inselbergs on the way. We were greeted at the airstrip by Mathieu the manager of Camp Nomade and our two guides for the week Bonaventure (appropriate name!) and Mohammed. We jumped in the brand new Land Cruisers, kitted out with comfortable leather seats and bespoke spaces for camera equipment and set off for Camp Nomade. We came across a large herd (journey) of giraffe, numerous raptors & birds and a number of reedbuck and waterbuck.
With excitement, we were shown around the camp, which is modelled on the traditional nomadic camps of the region and is beautifully decorated with brightly coloured carpets, leather, wood and brassware. There are eight tents, each tent consists of a mosquito net ‘box’ which could also be described as ‘a room with a view!’ and a stretch canvas above to provide shade. As well as a comfortable bed there is a nightstand and a clothes rail and shelf. There is an adjoining individual bathroom for each tent consisting of local grass fencing screens with a bucket shower, compost toilet and hand wash basin. The tents are spread apart for maximum privacy.
The shared main camp area is full of comfortable cushions on which to recline, relax and enjoy the view of Reguiek pan which is packed full of flocks of birdlife and often buffalo, waterbuck and occasionally mammals such as warthog and lion. The long dining table enables for breakfasts & lunches to be shared in the shade and in the evenings the table is moved outside for dinner. The food is all prepared on site in a large kitchen tent by talented chef Abdoulaye and his team. There is great variety in the food, with tasty and fresh dishes presented every day. We were stunned by the quality of the food, prepared in this hot, dry, dusty and remote place, with no electricity.
With a maximum of 8 guests plus 2 private guides in camp at any time, for the majority of our stay we felt like we had the whole of Zakouma National Park to ourselves. Sightings of wildlife seem all the more unique and special without a crowd of other vehicles alongside. African Parks have an approved list of guides who are able to make bookings at Camp Nomade for 1 week at a time and bring 8 guests. Our booking was with Richard Anderson from Anderson Expeditions. Richard is a knowledgeable and experienced private guide leading specialist trips through Africa and South America. This was Richard’s third time to Zakouma. He brought with him Fraser Gear, another experienced guide, enabling each vehicle to have a private guide as well as the guide/driver from Camp Nomade. Four sets of eyes searching for wildlife are always better than two!
During our 6 night stay we explored as much of the park as we could. Camp Nomade is situated next to Reguiek pan which is a haven for predators, herbivores, primates and birdlife. We spent the first day and a half exploring the Reguiek area and had numerous sightings including lion, spotted hyena, serval, civet, genet, elephant, Kordofan giraffe, Central African Savannah buffalo, Western greater kudu, red-fronted gazelle, Lelwel’s hartebeest, tiang, roan antelope, Defassa waterbuck, warthog, olive baboon and Bohor reedbuck.
I couldn’t possibly list all of the birdlife as the sky, ground and trees were so packed full that it would take a pro birder to remember them all! A spectacle of the pan area is the red billed quelea who come in large, noisy flocks to drink. The quelea are vulnerable to predators when drinking so move with the plan of safety in numbers. This means that at times the sky is dancing with these beautiful formations of quelea swirling around like smoke.
The highlights for us in the Reguiek area were our first ever sightings of serval, such a beautiful cat, (we then went on to see serval every single evening, which was a real treat!) and two male lions feasting on a waterbuck early one morning. One of the lions was determined to guard the carcass from the diving yellow billed kites and crows that were trying to steal titbits and the ever growing number of vultures and marabou stork arriving to attempt to get their share. He was growling at them and took a particular dislike to the kites that were a constant irritant to him swooping down above his head.
We spent two nights fly camping in the South of the park enabling us to explore the area around the Salamat River. The staff at Camp Nomade set up small mosquito net domed tents opposite the river for us and two compost toilets and a bucket shower complete with privacy screens.
The camp’s chef and food team travelled with us to keep us in the manner we had become accustomed!
As we sat drinking our sundowners before dinner, the crocodiles in the river began making some guttural, loud noises known as belch barking. It was a little startling at first, as by now it was dark and although between us we had visited many different African countries and seen hundreds or thousands of crocodiles, but none of us had heard them make these noises before. When we shone our torch into the water we could see the eye shine of hundreds of crocodiles reflecting back. The locals think the belch bark is a noise of aggression as there is such a high concentration of crocs fighting for territory in a relatively small area.
The landscape in the South has different features; there is a lot more forested area and less open grassland. Whilst half of the group took a guided walk along the river the rest of us went for a drive to explore the area. We came across a male and a female lion as well as Grimm’s duiker, oribi, Buffon’s kob, Patas monkey and Tantalus monkey which we had not seen in the Reguiek area. We could hear elephants communicating but it was difficult to find exactly where they were. We walked down to the river with Richard and our armed ranger but we had just missed them. We came across a group of the Mamba team of anti-poaching rangers, who spend 10 days at a time in the park travelling on horseback to protect the elephants. The rangers are employed from local communities around the park and undergo extensive training in a number of key skills, including shooting and arrest tactics. It was the first day of their 10 day shift and they were just about to eat their lunch. It was a privilege to shake hands with these men who lay their lives on the line to protect the wildlife from poachers.
We were reunited with the group who had been walking, for lunch eaten at a dining table placed under the shade of a tree in Sourone pan. After lunch, mats were laid out for a rest in the shade before an afternoon drive back to the fly camp. When we passed the area that we had heard the elephants earlier in the morning we could hear them again. It was worth another walk down to the river to see if we would be lucky second time around and boy were we rewarded. We sat down on the bank of the river where on the opposite side around 200 elephants were coming to the river to drink. It was heartening to see so many babies and young, further demonstrating how well the anti-poaching teams are performing. Poaching drove a massive decline in the elephant population, from 4,000 individuals in 2002 to just 450 in 2010. The elephant population is now finally on the rise; with over 550 individuals counted in 2016, this is the first time elephants have been on the increase in the park in over a decade.
After our two nights of fly camping we took a leisurely drive back to Camp Nomade, making some interesting stops along the way. We got out of the car along one stretch of sandy track where Fraser walked us 100 metres along identifying numerous animal tracks & footprints, just in that short stretch. We saw tracks of banded mongoose, striped hyena, crocodile, giraffe, buffalo, civet and genet. It is possible to tell how old the tracks are by whether seed eater birds have walked through them and ant lions have built their traps.
As we drove past African Park’s HQ we saw that one of the regular bull elephant visitors was in the garden drinking from waterhole. There were around 70 local children and adults watching on with rapture, wide smiles on the children’s faces. These locals were visitors to Camp Salamat. The camp’s primary purpose is to offer free accommodation to Chadians who would like to visit Zakouma National Park. It is also used as part of the park’s outreach programmes, when day-long visits are organised during the season to bring children, students and local villagers from Zakouma’s surrounding communities to visit the park.
We also saw a vegetable garden that has been set up by the wives of the rangers to grow veggies and salad that can be sold as fresh produce to the camps. The garden is protected by wire mesh to keep the wildlife out. They are also thinking of setting up a honey farm.
That evening we took an early dinner and then went out for a long night drive around the Reguiek pan. Searching for wildlife at night is very exciting; the guides use a spotlight to look for eye shine. During out drive we were really excited to see an African wildcat. This is another species that has eluded us during our previous safari trips. These cats are one of the most successful hunters with a higher success rate than lion, leopard & cheetah. We also had numerous sightings of genet, civet, scrub hare and a Verreaux’s Eagel Owl.
We were joined at dinner by Leon Lamprecht, the manager of Zakouma National Park. Leon has been the manager of Zakouma since January 2017. Previously Leon was manager at Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. It was fascinating to talk to Leon about his experiences of managing Zakouma and the challenges that the team face and also all of the good things that have happened since he has been there. Leon previously served as an officer in the South African Defense Force, so he is able to draw on that experience to help with the strategy for the anti-poaching effort.
For our final full day in Zakouma, we drove to the North of the park. Once again the terrain looked different, with a lot more long dry grass and orange barked trees. Fraser saw tracks of two cheetah and although we didn’t find them it was great to know that there are cheetah present in the North of the park. As we were driving along we came across two lions, a pregnant female and a male together. The female looked like she would be giving birth soon. Further along the track we saw two animals stand up when they heard the car, it was a pair of caracal. This was an exhilarating sight, another first for us! Unfortunately the caracals were very shy and they went and hid behind some bushes, but could see them peeking through.
We reached the boundary of the park and shortly after that we saw lots of people fishing and a huge quantity of livestock around. There were people collecting dry grasses and loading it onto their donkeys to take back to their village. We went to visit a family of nomads who come to the edge of the park to live during the dry season; they travel on their camels along with their cattle and sheep. African Parks have built a school in the area for the children to attend whilst they are in the area. The family consisted of around 20 individuals including lots of children and babies. We sat talking (translated through our guide Mohammed) to the Grandfather and Father of the family; they were telling us about their lifestyle and what it is like to live as a nomad. We were invited to take a look around their camp and meet some of the rest of the family. It was a really enjoyable visit.
Our final sundowner drinks were taken on the other side of Reguiek pan where we were joined by Leon, Mathieu and his wife Victoire. As the sun went down the stars came twinkling out with a spectacular show before the moon rose.
The following morning on our way to the airstrip we came across a pair of lionesses who were walking nervously across the grassland, constantly looking behind them. We stopped the vehicle and one of the lions walked right up to our vehicle to inspect us more closely. It was a fitting end to a wonderful week of wildlife spotting, where collectively as a group we had sightings of lion every single day.
The Park HQ is located next to the airstrip so we went for a quick tour before heading off. We were shown around by Jerome who is the Head of Operations, also the chief pilot and a qualified vet. Zakouma has tagged elephants in each of the park’s herds, fitting them with satellite GPS collars in order to gather more information on their movements during both the wet and the dry season. Each satellite collar transmits location data every four to eight hours, enabling management to follow the elephant movements closely. We saw this in action with the radio operator giving information to the rangers. Anti-poaching patrols are a year-round activity and the central radio control room is manned 24/7 by trained operators.
Somewhat reluctantly we took our flight back to N’Djamena. As the aircraft arrived at the airstrip, a group of new and excited guests disembarked the plane. We were envious of them, knowing what they had to look forward to over their coming week at Camp Nomade. Zakouma National Park is a truly astounding and incredible place, one of the most special parks we have ever visited. An abundance of wildlife, with birdlife unlike anything else we have ever experienced and with an inspiring story of successful anti-poaching and species coming back from the brink.
It is wild and fascinating place, ready and waiting to be experienced by the curious and intrepid and definitely one that is on our list to visit again.
African Parks and the conservation success story
African Parks has managed Zakouma National Park since 2010. The Park has become a safe haven for Central and West African wildlife. With security having been restored and wildlife rebounding, Zakouma is now a coveted tourism destination to the benefit of adjacent communities whose livelihoods have improved considerably.
The park is an important refuge for numerous animals, many of which are threatened elsewhere within this eco-zone, which stretches as a band across the breadth of Africa to the south of the Sahara Desert.
Today the elephant population of Zakouma is on the rise for the first time in a decade, with more than 500 individuals counted in 2018, 81 of which were under the age of three. In terms of avian species, Zakouma is believed to be home to the largest population of red-necked or North African ostrich, now extinct in most of its former range. The black-crowned crane is found in flocks of thousands and it is believed that the ecosystem is key to the survival of this species due to habitat loss in many areas. The black-breasted barbet is also found in Zakouma, a species of very limited range in Chad, CAR and Sudan, making the park the only place where it can be viewed by tourists. Since African Park’s involvement, most species of larger mammals, including buffalo, giraffe, roan antelope and Lelwel’s hartebeest have increased in number. The buffalo population, reduced to only about 220 animals in 1986, has increased to over 10,000 today.
Camp Nomade is erected in Zakouma’s prime wildlife-viewing areas during the driest part of the dry season. It has a very short season, from mid-December to mid–April, making it very exclusive and highly sought after. At the end of the season before the plains flood, the camp is dismantled and packed away until the water recedes and the ground dries out enough for the camp to be rebuilt.
We booked our trip directly with Anderson Expeditions. One weeks stay including return charter flights from N’Djamena, 1 night stay in N’Djamena, airport transfers, all meals and drinks, game drives and activities, laundry and two private guides costs around $10,000 USD per person.
There are two other more basic camps in the park, Tinga Camp set up by the government which is situated on the banks of the Tinga River, surrounded by lush vegetation. It is located in one of the park’s best game-viewing areas and has 24 rooms; and Camp Salamat which is free for Chadians.
Zakouma would be an unusual choice for first timers to Africa and is probably more suited to seasoned safari travellers.
Richard Anderson from Anderson Expeditions arranged the trip and there was a loose itinerary for the week detailed below. The best thing about an expedition such as this is that there is a huge amount of flexibility available, meaning that if drives take longer because you have had awesome sightings or people want to do different activities, it can all be catered for and no one or no activity has a deadline to finish. This makes for a very enjoyable holiday.
27th February – N’DJAMENA, CHAD
On arrival in N’Djamena you will be met by your expedition guides, Richard Anderson and Fraser Gear, and your ground team, and road transferred to the Hilton Hotel for the night.
28th February – N’DJAMENA to ZAKOUMA NATIONAL PARK
After an early breakfast you’ll be road transferred back to the airport for the charter flight to Zakouma National Park. The charter aircraft is a Cessna Caravan 208 and the flight will take about 2.5 hours. On arrival in Zakouma you will meet your ground team and game drive to Camp Nomade.
28th February to 7th March – ZAKOUMA NATIONAL PARK
These 7 days will be spent exploring Zakouma National Park and the parks perimeter using Camp Nomade and the mobile fly-camp as nightly bases.
Typically days start very early with coffee/tea and biscuits before heading out of camp around sunrise. Depending on the plan for the day you may return to camp for a late breakfast or take a packed breakfast and return to camp for lunch. Days can be made up of game drives, walking, sitting at action-packed pans watching wildlife and birds or any adventurous endeavor which is a good idea at the time! Camp Nomade and Zakouma provides a safari environment offering complete flexibility in the manner you explore this incredible park, and you and your guide will take full advantage of this adaptability which is possible in only very few parts of Africa. You’ll generally return to camp after dark for a well-earned dinner. Depending on energy levels and animal activity in the vicinity of the camp you’ll embark on night drives after dinner in search of the parks nocturnal creatures.
7th March – ZAKOUMA NATIONAL PARK to N’DJAMENA
A final morning in Zakouma before your charter flight departs for N’Djamena. On arrival at N’Djamena airport you’ll be assisted with the connection on to your international departure
Richard & Fraser are incredible guides, sharing a huge amount of expertise and knowledge, maintaining an excellent sense of humour and being great and interesting company, enabling all guests to enjoy their trip to the maximum whatever their ability or requirements. We would not hesitate to arrange another trip with either (or preferably) both of them some time again soon.
Richard has two weeks available at Camp Nomade in 2019; guests are able to book for either 1 week or 2 weeks stay.
The climate during the dry season is blisteringly hot with temperatures soaring as high as 42 or 43 degrees Celsius. Early mornings and evenings are more comfortable when the temperature drops down to a pleasant 23 to 26 degrees Celsius. There is very little chance of rain between January and April.
The Central African Franc or CFA is the official currency although USD are widely accepted (ensure you have new, clean notes).
At the time of writing, the UK Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to the whole country of Chad and the US Department of State advises to reconsider your travel to Chad. High risk travel insurance which covers Chad is essential for all visitors.
Visitors to Chad must have a passport that is valid for at least 6 months with at least 2 consecutive/side by side blank pages on entry for stamps. Should there be insufficient blank pages in your passport then entry into or exit from a country could be denied. A visa is required for most travellers to Chad. This has to be obtained prior to arrival from your closest Chadian Embassy. An invitation letter will be provided by Zakouma National Park once your booking is confirmed.
On arrival in Chad it is required for each individual to report to a police station to register their arrival in the country. African Parks can arrange with the authorities for a representative to do this in your place. You will need to bring 2x passport photos.
A “Yellow Fever Ceritficate” is required to enter Chad. You will be asked to show this once you are through immigration.