October 24th, 2008
06:46 PM ET

Surveying elephants with jubilation and horror

Editor’s note
: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril returns this year to examine the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Lisa Ling travel to the front lines of this worldwide battle. Ling has been a co-host of The View, correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, National Geographic and Channel One. She filed this blog from Chad.

Check out the amazing photographs from the Planet in Peril team’s trip to Chad
Check out the amazing photographs from the Planet in Peril team’s trip to Chad

Lisa Ling
AC360° Special Correspondent

Today was a day filled with both extreme jubilation and utter horror.

I’m using the last bit of my computer battery whilst sitting under a mosquito net at the Tinga Camp in the Zakoma National Park in southeastern Chad. We are here to report on the astronomical reduction of Central African Elephants in the region. We’re with Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Mike Fay, who has conducted comprehensive surveys of the region’s elephants over the years. He says over the last four decades, the number of Central African elephants has dwindled from nearly two hundred thousand to several thousand: the pace of the loss has been hugely shocking and disturbing. The global demand for ivory combined with war in neighboring Sudan has nearly killed off the Central African elephant. These elephants are the largest land animals on earth and have roamed the region for thousands of years. They have proven, however, to be no match for man and his gun.

Our day started early. After fueling, we boarded a Cessna airplane in search of elephant herds. Fay says that having an airplane greatly impacts the ability to survey the elephant population but also to defend against poachers. People are not allowed to live in the park, but from the air, we saw camps of nomads living just beyond the borders.

We flew for about an hour and a half without seeing any elephants. I was starting to get sleepy-eyed when Fay surprised us by saying, “I’m seeing a lot of elephant activity.”

What he meant was that he was seeing huge tracts of grass that had been trampled–a sign of the presence of a lot of elephants. And then, we saw them: a huge herd of over two hundred giant grey beasts huddled together moving in collective formation. It was a truly awesome sight to see such an abundance of these massive animals in the wild. I was having a hard time containing my excitement until the plane started tilting so severely that I began to feel sick. I turned around to see our still photographer Jeff sitting in the seat behind me: he was green. Nevertheless, it was a spectacular experience to see these glorious animals and it was an image I will never forget. Fay said that seeing such a big herd made him feel “optimistc.”

Back at the lodge, we all dispersed to our rooms to rest when two French advisors to the anti-poaching patrol came to tell me that there was a dead elephant less than two miles away. They said it looked to be a recent kill as it was still gushing blood.

We rushed to the site and the smell was immediately impenetrable and unlike anything I had ever smelled before. We jumped out of the vehicle and followed the stench through the maze of tall grass. I literally started to gag as we rounded the corner and saw it: a huge mound of grey covered in maggots and crawling with flies: it was a female. Simply put, it was just gruesome. Though the blood was still fresh, Fay said that it looked to have been dead for a couple of days as its body was starting to bloat and vultures seemed to have gotten to it. He observed that it had several bullet wounds and that poachers probably shot into the herd and simply struck this particular elephant. This elephant, however, died for no reason. Its body was left totally intact. It had no tusks – no ivory. Fay thought it probably walked for a while before dying in the place we found it.

I was absolutely horrified by what I was saw and smelled. I asked Fay how many times he had seen this and sullenly replied, “a hundred times.”

It was hard to believe that this day that began with such excitement and hope could end in such tragedy. These magnificent creatures that predate man by thousands of years: victim to him and his mighty weapon.

Filed under: Lisa Ling • Planet in Peril • TV
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Ilhana, Bosnia

    Thanx for sheding a light on these troublesome subjects the entire animal world is facing: extinction and poaching (among others). It is just horrible to read such a thing, and I hope the elephants will prevail in the end. This is senseless and terrible.

    October 27, 2008 at 6:00 am |
  2. Aaron, Watertown, WI

    Hey, Lisa, good to have found you posting somewhere after your Uber blog froze up. (It's mtvcdm, just so you know.)

    I have read, in no less a place than National Geographic, that the African elephant situation is mixed based on local laws. Most countries, Chad included, have a shortage, but a few actually have too many to handle due to elephant-protection laws allowing them to proliferate beyond local capacity, and can't find a good home for the surplus. Kruger National Park in South Africa is one such example– they have too many to handle and are considering the introduction of culling.

    This is simply playing devil's advocate, however. It's obvious that didn't happen here or anything of the sort, and worldwide the species is threatened. These particular poachers didn't even care enough to at least make sure their target had ivory before killing it, meaning this elephant died for no other reason than a combination of greed, laziness and stupidity.

    The problem seems to be exacerbated by the fact that most African nations simply don't have the money to adequately police the situation, and they have other pressing concerns besides. Starvation. War. Human-on-human violence, much of which you've reported on in the past. So if anything is going to get done in time, more developed countries are going to have to give the African parks enough of a security makeover to where the park rangers can catch poachers on a regular basis before they have the chance to fire their weapons.

    October 27, 2008 at 2:39 am |
  3. Kim

    The ones that shoot feel no music.......Play Moonlight Beethovan. ! A painted tragedy of no ivory.Sad sorry !

    October 27, 2008 at 2:06 am |
  4. Pavan polum

    Thanks for bringing up this story,All these activities are tied to the economic situation and population growth. Government's should come forward to help the people living in those areas, Improve their living standards and provide employment and they should invest money to protect the wildlife sanctuaries of africa .

    October 26, 2008 at 8:59 am |
  5. Joanne, Syracuse, NY

    The consequence for illogical animal kill has never been restrictive enough to deter those who do this for thrills, sport, profit, or madness. An international commission should consider unliateral intervention for these dispicable practices.

    October 25, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  6. Max

    My best friend loves elephants ...

    One day it would be nice to see some on a safari.

    (I think the mammoth style "Hollywood special effect" elephants predate humans but what do I know????)

    October 25, 2008 at 5:42 pm |
  7. Rinna

    I have been to Africa and seen these majestic animals in their natural habitat. People today are so filled with greed that if others stop buying ivory, then the poaching and killing will stop. Laws should be enacted to ban the sale and possession of ivory/ivory related items. What a shame that in these civilized times where we have so much more technology – people continue to be greedy and do not care about the perseverence of these fine animals. Humans are like parasites, whatever makes us wealthier, we would destroy to obtain. Diamonds (blood diamonds) and furs carry the same guilt. I can buy the most expensive diamonds/furs and ivories, but I will not be a contributer/consumer of these items, and I would be guilty just as the poachers. But of course there are so many ways of 'making a living', its what our conscience will allow us to accept as good. We have choices.....

    October 25, 2008 at 2:35 pm |
  8. Anna, HK

    Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for your story on the African elephant, though very sad to learn that their numbers have dwindled significantly. Never could understand why there is such a demand for its ivory. Though I can appreciate the talent, skill & artistry that goes into an intricately carved piece of ivory that would look great in anyone's home.... but really is there a large market for ivory carvings these days? I've seen beautiful but very old ivory carvings in museums, in ivory specialty shops (always quiet), the odd fort/castle in India (but a different elephant I believe)... etc., but never actually in someone's home, big or small.... It's illegal, so why is there such a market for them still, so much so that it is causing their decline? I have never actually heard anyone rave about elephant carvings... etc. What is their appeal... obviously I do not move in those connoisseur circles.

    Always such a waste to senselessly kill any animal.... There's a lot of mindless ignorant people around.

    October 25, 2008 at 1:12 pm |
  9. Texas

    Lisa Ling, "Thank You" and your co-leaders for your story. How tragic-unless provoked, tthese magnificent animals hurt no-one. How tragic for the Human Race...barbaric! Ivory tusks (i.e. the monetary value thereof)– is more important to some than LIFE itself! Judgement Day comes for us all! Stay Safe Lisa Ling & Friends!

    October 25, 2008 at 10:37 am |
  10. Norma Susan Smith

    Dear Lisa – I wish you well. Please continued to expose the money-makers in all trades that abuse and/or kill animals.God help us to find an alternative to what many do for a living. 

    No judgment here.....Everybody is unbalanced.  How unbalanced depends on from where and on which side of the fulcrum you are hanging.

    Norma Susan SmithVancouver BC Canada

    October 24, 2008 at 11:31 pm |
  11. Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    Lisa: Thanks for sharing your story. I'm glad that the plight of the elephant is being exposed in the PIP2 series. That photo is awesome and eerie at the same time knowing that these beautiful animals are a target for poachers wanting their tusks. If more people knew the horror involved, perhaps less would want the ivory to begin with.

    October 24, 2008 at 9:49 pm |
  12. Kathy, Chicago

    It is so sad to hurt any creature for no reason. I'd like to see the same thing happen to the person who killed the elephant, but that would be wrong. we need to educate these people and train them in a new way to make a living. It is truely a senseless killing.

    October 24, 2008 at 9:43 pm |
  13. Don, WA

    Watching these herds in the fields moving through the hot air, or the rain, is like looking into a long time ago... I rode on an elephant's back when I was five. I sat on a narrow wood bench in a wooden box strapped to the elephant's back. The wood creaked as the elephant walked along, and that sound, with the slow sway of the walk, was like being on board an old ship.... And people come out of the trees and the tall grass, and shoot them for tusks.

    October 24, 2008 at 9:01 pm |
  14. Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX

    Thank you for reporting for our friend elephants. I remember as a small child the first tears I shed for an animal was an elephant who was killed in a movie. 🙁
    They are such amazing creatures with incredible consciousness! They cry real tears when a family member is shot.

    October 24, 2008 at 8:59 pm |
  15. Annie Kate


    Thank you for posting about the elephants. They are truly magnificent animals and of course, man is short sighted and only sees them for what they can be used for – ivory in this case. I hope that the US will get involved seriously in the effort to stop activities like this that are quickly driving certain animals to extinction as well as doing our part to reducing the damage climate change is doing to our planet – our habitat as well as the wildlife's habitat. If we wait much longer it may be too late.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    October 24, 2008 at 8:09 pm |
  16. Sandra Robertson


    Thank you for sharing with us your bittersweet encounter with the magnificent Central African Elephant and their continuing struggle for survival. I was struck by Jeff's photo of the herd from the Cessna. The shadow of the plane forms a cross above the herd and I pray for their survival. I know their grief is overwhelming when they come upon their tragically butchered brethren. What horrors man has wrought against nature will come back on him two-fold.

    October 24, 2008 at 7:44 pm |
  17. Carmen

    It is a tragedy that elephants are being killed by poachers but it is an even bigger tragedy that they continue to be slaughtered in fenced in "ranches" in Africa where they have nowhere to run and where "big game" hunters drive around in the compounds looking for their next trophy.

    It needs to stop. The animals face so many pressures from civilization, agriculture and other that to allow this kind of "sport" is not in keeping with the changes and concerns of today's environment.

    People who hunt this way, and many from the USA, state that the revenues generated from this type of hunting help the economy in Africa – but the destruction of the animals, while it seems to each hunter that they could have no impact, just about whether a poacher takes an animal here and there – it is about the entire amount of pressure on animals which reproduce slowly, live long lives, are intelligent. Agriculture, hunting {trophy, canned and that sustained by the governments of Africa to "control" populations and which governments then sell the ivory to outside interests}, pesticides, forestry, loss of habitat, shrinking ranges {elephants are migratory animals with established ranges} all add up.

    It is now being documented that in an effort to escape poachers, some elephants are leaving the protections of parks and extending ranges into agricultural land and public forests. This raises problems of human/animal conflict and poses a greater issue for society as a whole on a global level – when are we going to start being accountable and responsible for the environment and life forms that share the earth with us. After all, the pressures they face will eventually be the ones we will also face.

    October 24, 2008 at 7:22 pm |
  18. Lucy

    What comes around goes around. We are destroying the planet. I went to college in the 1970's and it was all about making changes to save the planet. I left college thinking I would make a change. Instead I leave the sprinkler on too long, drink water out of a plastic bottle, drive a gas guzzler, and bought a house in the green belt that is no longer green.
    Hopefully, our children who will be paying for taxes for my generation's mistakes will take heed and know that this is truly our last chance to save the planet. I pray that they learn that we are all interconnected and we must be active in our government and our world from now on.

    October 24, 2008 at 7:06 pm |
  19. Cindy

    It is a shame that men will sneak into these national parks and kill such a magnificent animal for nothing or for a tusk. That is just senseless. People like that need to be in prison for a long time. Unfortunately they are getting away with it one too many times. I hope that more can be done to keep these elephants alive.

    Can't wait to see PIP2 December 11th.


    October 24, 2008 at 7:00 pm |