By Ingrid Formanek, Nick Thompson
Zakouma, Chad (CNN)"Conservation is war," they say, and nowhere is that clearer than in Zakouma National Park.
Every day, in this remote wildlife refuge in the Salamat region of southeastern Chad, park rangers risk their lives to protect elephants that have managed to survive the poaching massacres of the last decade.
In the rising morning heat, birdcalls are interrupted by shots ringing out in the bush. It's an elite group of park rangers training on a firing range to sharpen their combat skills.
Dressed in bush-colored camouflage and with traditional cloth wrapped around their heads for protection against the sun and sand, some two dozen rangers are getting specialized instruction in battling poachers.
They're the Mamba team, the park's own rapid response unit.
Ready, aim, fire
"Formation! Prepare yourselves! Fire!" shouts Patrick Duboscq, a retired French police officer instructing the Zakouma rangers.
A handful of men throw themselves flat to the ground, aim, and fire their Glock pistols, hitting distant targets. They jump up, run, and fire again from standing positions, repeating the drill with Kalashnikovs.
Duboscq, who is a volunteer, runs the Mamba team through its paces. His passion for elephants, conservation and the park brings him back every year to keep Zakouma's troops sharp -- and the animals safe.
Duboscq leads the men through a rallying cry for Zakouma; the rest of the exercise is all business. They're capable of taking on armed poachers, handling sniper rifles, and engaging in a firefight. They're trained in making arrests, judicial procedures and presenting evidence in court.
A deadly game
It's a sharp learning curve, but it's necessary to fight off the lethal threat poachers present. Often organized criminal gangs, international trafficking mafias and terror groups are behind the poaching raids, providing skills and sophisticated arms to carry out the killing.
"Of course it's dangerous," says Mamba team member Ahmat Assilek. "But we do it because it's our national patrimony ... that's why we're ready to die."
And these men have skin in the game. Among the group training today, four lost fathers to poachers when a six-man Zakouma anti-poaching unit was gunned down outside the park in September 2012 during morning prayers.
The raid was a suspected retaliation killing for the capture of a group of poachers who had slaughtered six elephants the previous month north of the park. According to park staff, the raid on the poacher camp netted satellite phones, solar chargers, stamped Sudanese army leave slips and insignia, and 1,500 rounds of ammunition.
The poachers weren't minor league opportunists. They were well equipped to slaughter elephants for their ivory -- and to kill anyone trying to stop them.
23 Zakouma guards have died on the job since 1998.
Park manager Rian Labuschagne understands the dangers confronting Zakouma and its staff. Along with his wife, Lorna Labuschagne, the conservationists were tasked with safeguarding the surviving elephant herds in 2010, when African Parks, a South Africa-based non-profit organization, took over the management of the embattled park following a decade-long elephant killing spree.
Before the Labuschagnes and African Parks took over the 3,000-plus-square-kilometer area, the territory suffered huge losses.
In 2002, an estimated 4,300 elephants lived in Zakouma. A decade later that figure had plummeted by 90 percent, most of them slaughtered by poachers for their ivory. The elephants were in danger of being wiped out.
About 450 elephants make Zakouma their home today -- roughly half the entire elephant population of Chad, says the park's field operations manager Darren Potgieter. It's a far cry from the 50,000 elephants that roamed the country's savannahs and scrublands 50 years ago.
The statistics for the region are equally dire. As recently as 1970, Potgieter says, 300,000 elephants roamed a Texas-sized area that included southern Chad, eastern Central African Republic, southwestern Sudan, and northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, only small pockets of elephant populations remain, and they remain under threat.
This is not one of the world's thriving neighborhoods; each of these countries has experienced protracted wars, and all have impoverished populations.
Poaching, shrinking habitats, human-animal conflict, war and a seemingly insatiable appetite for ivory in Asia -- particularly in China -- have all contributed to the disappearing populations of elephants and many other species. Zakouma is no exception.
Turning the tide
So the Labuschagnes, with their African Parks staff and volunteers, set out to reverse the grim Zakouma statistics, which eclipsed even the worst trends of vanishing elephant populations across much of the African continent.
For years, the constant fear of being hunted and killed had made the elephants too stressed out to reproduce. But by the end of 2011, Zakouma started to see a dramatic turnaround. Since then, no elephants have been poached in the park, and no ivory has been taken from the park in five years.
More than 40 calves have been welcomed into the herd since the end of 2013. The births are an important step towards the park's goal of increasing the herd's size to more than one thousand within the next decade.
The gains of the past few years were hard-earned. And the benefits have been reaped not only by the animals but by people living nearby as well.
Communities around Zakouma have been given a stake in the battle against poachers. It has not only meant well-paid jobs as guards, rangers and support staff, but the patrols in and on the periphery of the park also mean better security for the surrounding villages and nomads. More....