Interview with Rocco Rava, Director of Chad’s proposed Ennedi Protected Area and one of the greatest experts on Northern Chad. Ennedi is a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
* I would like to thank @inyathi for his great contribution to this interview.
Rocco, How long have you been working in Chad in the tourism industry before leading the African Parks mission in the Ennedi?
I first went to Chad 25 years ago in 1992 with our family tourism agency to the Tibesti Mountains, this was very different to the mission I’m now conducting with African Parks.
It all started in the seventies when my father started to guide tourist groups in the Sahara. He was a doctor and a professional mountain guide with a deep fascination for nature. He first went to Algeria and then started to establish a base in Niger from which to lead groups into the Central Sahara in time he became one of the Sahara’s leading expeditions guides.
Chad was then totally unknown having been closed to tourism since independence for historical reasons. As the highest mountain range in the Sahara Tibesti held a strong attraction for adventurers, in 1992 we led the first expedition there with a Team of Touaregs from Niger. In 1993 we established our first base in N’Djamena
Ennedi is one of the most visited places in the Southern Sahara. Could you describe Ennedi and what makes it such a special place for tourists?
Chad is currently the only Saharan destination which is still safe for tourists to visit; all of the other Sahelo-Saharan nations are facing complex security issues. Compared to Tibesti, Ennedi is quite easy to get to as it is closer to N’Djamena.
The Ennedi has unique characteristics compared to the region’s other five mountain ranges in terms of its landscapes, its wealth of fauna and flora and its human inhabitants. In terms of biodiversity it is the only Saharan range that does not possess any species of Mediterranean flora and has very little endemism.
There are two main reasons for the exceptional biodiversity. On the one hand, its geographical position with foothills located in the path of the trade winds that bring rain to the region. On the other hand the Ennedi is composed of permeable sedimentary sandstone rocks. These two factors explain the unusual humidity for somewhere of this latitude, permanent water springs make Ennedi one of the most important water catchments in this arid region. It lies at the crossroads of old commercial and colonial roads that have crossed the Sahara through the centuries, L’eau c’est la vie, water is life.
What are the main animal species still found in the Ennedi? Are there any Saharan cheetahs, leopards or wild dogs still present in the area?
There have been no studies on the wildlife of the region; in July African Parks will carry out the first scientific survey of the wildlife in Ennedi to get a better idea of what wildlife remains. However there’s no doubt that there is still an impressive variety of wildlife typical of this Sahelo-Saharan ecosystem. Cheetahs are very hard to spot but they are still present, I have once seen a female, and quite a few times I’ve found their footprints and on occasion a dead cheetah killed by nomads. Wild dogs were last reported in the seventies. With regard to leopards it’s difficult to say, I’ve never heard anything about these animals from local people. The last lions in the north of Chad were killed in 1932 about 350 kilometres north of Ennedi.
The Ennedi used to be a real Eden but decades of wars with Libya and rebellions took their toll on the wildlife, but wildlife is still present. The wildlife suffered mainly from the proliferation of guns in the region and hunting for bushmeat to feed the soldiers. There is also some pressure on the wildlife due to competition with domestic cattle in some areas.
There used to be scimitar-horned oryx and addax grazing in the wadis east and west of the plateau but these animals are gone now, in Chad addax are now entirely restricted to Eguey-Bodele close to the frontier with Niger, and the oryx became completely extinct in the wild. Species that are still present include dorcas gazelles, Barbary sheep, crocodiles, striped hyena, serval, ratel (honey badger), patas monkeys and olive baboons.
What was Ennedi like a century ago?
We don’t have any solid data concerning the climate and the rains from the beginning of the 20th century. It doesn’t seem that the climate has changed much through the last century; the dramatic decline in the area’s wildlife is entirely a result of the proliferation of firearms in the sixties and seventies.
On the plateau Barbary sheep, dorcas gazelles and cheetahs occurred at much higher densities than today, and scimitar-horned oryx, addax, cheetahs and red-necked ostriches could still be found in the wadis to the east and west of the plateau.
Where are the last strongholds for cheetahs and wild dogs in Chad and the Sahelo-Saharan region?
The last viable cheetah population in the Saharan region seems to be in Termit, Eastern Niger and in Northern Hoggar Algeria. A picture from the Tedefest region taken with a camera trap was published last year. Cheetahs used to live in the Aïr region of Northern Niger but no information is available today. The last report of cheetahs in Southern Ennedi dates from 1962.
In Chad some wild dogs persist around Zakouma National Park and cheetahs were seen inside the park in 2016.
What led African Parks NGO to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Chadian government in order to survey the Ennedi and create a vast protected area in this region?
We first understood the unique value of the Ennedi’s fragile ecosystem during our first mission to the area in 2005 conducted with the Saharan Conservation Fund (SCF) and the Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group (SSIG). Jean Marc Froment who is currently working with APN was part of the team.
Humans have always lived in the Ennedi through the ages, evidence can be found in the many archaeological sites and the continuous presence of the semi-nomadic Toubou people. The establishment of a protected area that excluded these people would be a complete failure, so the area won’t become a national park as under this category of protection continued human presence would not be permitted. We are thus opting for a category that would protect both the cultural and natural wonders of the area.
African Parks is keen to fulfil the challenge of creating a vast protected area within the Sahelo-Saharan ecosystem in what is a truly pioneering initiative. Our project is based on four guidelines: archaeological heritage, relations with local Toubou communities, wildlife and tourism. We want the local comunities to be involved in all the activities of the protected area, from which they will be the most important actors as a means of bringing development.
Between the Ennedi and Zakouma African Parks hopes to create a pioneering tourism product which doesn’t currently exist in Africa, The Ennedi offers spectacular and diverse landscapes, a unique biodiversity and close encounters with the local Toubou people. Wildlife biodiversity is very high for Sahelo-Saharan ecosystems, the Saharan crocodile found in the Guelta d’Archei is a real living fossil, but this will not be the main focus for tourism.
In contrast, Zakouma is one of the last wildernesses of Central Africa that offers premiere game viewing, but its landscapes are pretty monotonous. Our hope is that by combining the Ennedi with Zakouma we can offer tourists an extraordinary and very diverse experience.
Is the Chadian government fully committed to supporting your work? What is the local community’s attitude towards the creation of a protected area?
The support from the Chadian authorities is very strong. Work with the communities is long but making progress. It is actually quite difficult to explain the project to the nomads. Nomads are quite pragmatic and individualist, far from the stereotypes. We try to explain our approach focusing on the sustainability of our project, as the nomads depend on nature for their survival. Protecting native animals will create local jobs and small businesses for local communities. They will be important actors in the management of the protected area, some will be recruited as rangers to ensure the protection of the park and the conservancies, there will be one representing each of the conservancies. We are taking into account issues with domestic animals and are working to limit the size of the herds, to ensure access to water and education. We do not aim to replace the government’s obligations in terms of education, we will rather insist on the inclusion of nature education to create a consciousness of nature and the need for conservation in the next generations.
Local communities don’t have big herds causing over-grazing. The large herds generally belong to prominent rich members of the government or the army who are paying nomads to take care for their cattle and are responsible for drilling wells inside the desert. This phenomenon is not significant in the region; however, it is an issue at a national scale. There are an estimated 94 to 120 million domestic animals which is a lot compared to the population. Unquestionably the government will have to take action, because this generates security issues and money laundering.
We are also benefiting from a local belief, that the abundance of native wildlife will ensure good rains, and thus is good for cattle, as it means there is sufficient grass and water for their survival. This is the product of the strong droughts that occurred in the end of the last century. People are also protecting the crocodiles of the Guelta d’Archei, because they believe that if the crocodiles vanish the spring will dry up.
What are the goals of the surveys you are leading? Are you carrying out specific wildlife surveys? Did you manage to get some estimation of the densities of key wildlife species?
As said before, we will be leading a mission with our partner the Saharan Conservation Fund next July, to update data about wildlife. We hope to make further collaborations with the SCF in the future.
At the end of February 2016 a survey mission in collaboration with Pier Paolo Rossi took place in the Fada region in search of rock art sites.
Pier Paolo Rossi says:
The aim of the mission was to look for new Neolithic rock art sites (never visited by Europeans) in the region of Fada and also find those previously visited and catalogued by the French prehistorian Gerard Bailloud in the years 1956/1957. Several areas in the vicinity of the village of Fada have been systematically explored and we were able to document 59 rock art sites: only a few of them have already been published by Bailloud, the others were unknown to the international community. Chronologically, the findings cover a vast period of the Neolithic – from the ancient “archaic era” to the late “Camel period”. The majority of the sites belong to the “Bovidian intermediate period”. The mission has been very successful, and, with some outstanding new sites, made an important contribution to the knowledge of rock art in the Fada area and the entire Ennedi Natural Reserve.
In terms of biodiversity, the Sahara Conservation Fund does not include the Ennedi on the list of their top priorities. Why does APN focus on Ennedi instead of other significant places such as the Tibesti, OROA, Eguey or Manga areas which are considered to be the last stronghold for critically endangered antelopes in Chad?
There are big differences between the objectives of APN and SCF. SCF mainly focuses on antelope species, more particularly on dorcas and dama gazelles, scimitar-horned oryx and addax. The absence of these three last species from the plateau explains why SCF is absent from this region. Another explanation is that John Newby, current SCF director and co-founder, had been working in the eighties in OROA, and didn’t really know the Ennedi
What have been your major breakthroughs so far?
A good deal of data was obtained from the records of my previous expeditions through the region. On our last expedition carried out in February-march 2016, we have been exploring by camels a remote and unknown region located in the Northern Ennedi, which doesn’t have any tracks. It appeared to be a remarkable place for Barbary sheep. We also made important archaeological discoveries.
However, an important part of our work until now has focused on working with local communities to support the creation of the protected area.
What are the main threats to wildlife in the region?
The main threats are unsustainable hunting and poaching, principally people coming from nearby Sudan to hunt Barbary sheep; their impact however is not significant.
How many people live on the plateau and who are they?
Nomads living in Northern Chad belong to the Toubou or Gorane people. Their society is centred on the clan. The Toubous living in the Tibesti region are called Teda, while the ones inhabiting the Ennedi are called the Daza. If closely related, their languages are different. The Toubous breed camels, sheep and goats. On the Southern fringes of the plateau, in the Sahelian ecosystem, live cow herders called the Bideyat and the Zaghawas. There are an estimated 175,000 people from a 2009 census in the Ennedi province, which is much larger area than the plateau.
Are there any commercial roads crossing the region?
There are no roads crossing the Ennedi that could be used by poachers, only small tracks used by locals in some parts of the region. Roads used for illegal activities cross the North of the country and go on through Niger. In 2005, the conflict in Darfur led to an increase in poaching for dorcas gazelles, but this is not the case anymore.
Is there any risk that terrorists could expand into Northern Chad from neighbouring Libya or Niger?
Currently terrorism is fortunately absent from the North of Chad. This can be explained by the strength of the Chadian Army, which is probably one of the strongest in Africa. They have great control of the territory, Islamic fundamentalism is strictly controlled. These factors generate security in the North of the country.
However, the demise of Colonel Gaddafi created significant insecurity in the whole of the Sahara.
Decades of war in Chad have nevertheless generated a feeling of attachment to the country. Unlike the Touaregs in Northern Mali, the Toubou have achieved power in Chad in the eighties, they feel that they are the masters of their territory and do not feel that they are marginalised by the government. They don’t allow any interference in their territory and only apply the laws they choose. They are always looking after their own economic interests.
What is the attitude of the local people towards wildlife? Are there any cases of poaching of dorcas or other species? Are cheetahs a problem for nomads?
Poaching is now limited in the region, it focuses primarily on Barbary sheep and dorcas gazelles. It was harder to spot gazelles in the past; so we are now seeing the positive effects of the anti-poaching laws introduced at the beginning of the millennium. There are some conflicts with striped hyenas that prey on sheep, goats and camel calves. Conflicts with cheetahs are virtually nonexistent.
In one APN newsletter it was reported that 4 red-necked ostriches were confiscated and then released in the region. What is the current situation and what is your plan for this species? SCF is supporting a breeding centre for this species in Niger but it seems quite hard to get results.
The first translocation was largely supported by the government, which was in charge of the transport of the animals. A small enclosure was built 5 km south of Fada. Another enclosure is under construction. The animals laid some eggs but they are not incubating them. We aim to bring further animals in as soon as we get the opportunity.
We receive the support and advice of important vets in Africa and ostrich breeders from South Africa.
What is APN’s business plan and strategy for the following years?
We are now working on the draft management and business plan for the future protected area. We have a long term vision for the Ennedi, is it without doubt a large-scale project. We are thinking of reintroducing key species to the region. Dorcas gazelles are definitely still viable, as are Barbary sheep. We aim to reintroduce the red-necked ostrich in the region; this process will be based on breeding farms on the site. We are also considering the reintroduction of scimitar-horned oryx in the Western part of the area under protection.
Regarding cheetahs, we will consider any reinforcement plans once the reserve has been established and the community’s involvement is well structured.
Following your surveying of the area do you know what the proposed Ennedi protected area will look like?
The proposed protected area will have an area under protection of approximately 26,000 km²; it will be a natural and cultural protected area. About 9,000 km² West to plateau will be included in the park. Our protected area will focus on the better known Western side of the Ennedi, as we would need further information about the Eastern side to set up a project there. Surveys will be led in this area but considering the size of the region it is wiser to limit the size of the park, this will mean that we can achieve better results from our anti-poaching operations.
A larger area of 40.000 km² including the whole Ennedi plateau is currently in the process of be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we share the same vision.
The protected area will be divided into community “conservancies”, where local communities are currently living, and strict protected areas where consumptive activities will not be tolerated.
Is APN supporting the scimitar horned-oryx reintroduction project in OROA, Central Chad?
We have very good relations with SCF; we collaborated last year with their mission in Manga. They will lead our wildlife survey in the Ennedi next July. We share the same vision and hope to cooperate in the future with our conservation projects in Northern Chad. But we are neither partners nor actors in this project.
Has trophy hunting any role to play in the plan of the proposed protected area, more particularly concerning Barbary sheeps?
It’s too early to answer this question at this stage of the mission.
With the last depressing news published by the Saharan Conservation Fund, about Termit Addax population collapse, it appears that the last viable but fragile population occurs now in Eguey-Bodele. Is there some plans to boost this population or to reintroduce this species to OROA?
There is currently no plan to boost addax populations in Eguey, and OROA focuses on the oryx project.
All images courtesy and copyright Rocco Rava.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.
Edited by Game Warden, 06 May 2016 - 08:33 AM.