Founded in 2004, the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF) ‘exists to conserve the wildlife, habitats and other natural resources of the Sahara and its bordering Sahelian grasslands. Our vision is of a Sahara where ecological processes function naturally…a Sahara that benefits all its inhabitants and where support for its conservation comes from stakeholders across all sectors of society.’
Following a successful joint mission to rescue some critically endangered dama gazelle in January 2020, MAF Chad partnered with SCF again in July this year. Henry Bailey, conservationist and former SCF project director, explains more.
‘We have been working for a couple of years to put in place the management for Chad's biggest protected area, the Ouadi-Rimé Ouadi-Achim reserve, which covers 77,900 square kilometres: roughly twice the size of Switzerland. One of the key things needed is rangers, or guards, to protect both the land and the wildlife.
‘We have just finished preparing the guards for this huge area, who were selected from amongst the local youth. They have been at our training camp in the north-east of Chad for three months, although just before they finished a huge storm flooded the area, so we had to move them into a school building. As the students were on holiday they had the place to themselves, and also gave some time to cleaning it up and repairing the gate and some broken doors, as a service to the community.
‘To mark their successful completion of the programme, we brought in the local community and had a parade and other celebrations to recognise their efforts, and to encourage them in the work of protecting the reserve. MAF has supported us by bringing along several important guests for the event, including the Minister of Environment, the Counsellor for the Environment to the Office of the President, the Commander of the Brigade of the Wildlife Protection Service Guard, and a representative of the Directorate of Protected Areas and Wildlife.
‘If it wasn't for MAF this day wouldn't have been such a success. When we can do an event like this and bring these busy people up in a short time, get it televised, and show the rest of the country the importance of conservation and protection of the environment, it really has a huge impact. The journey could be made by road, but it's 1000 kilometres and takes an entire day to get there and the same to go back. A Minister of State and all these other people don't have the time for that. Without the flights, the visibility that we're aiming for, promoting the importance of the reserve and its protection would otherwise be diminished. So it makes a huge difference.’
Having worked in Kenya before coming to Chad and now with almost 10 years’ experience in conservation, Henry is committed to broadcasting the news about the work here as widely as possible. ‘As well as Ouadi-Rimé Ouadi-Achim, there are other wonderful reserves here, such as Ennedi in the north which is a fantastic landscape with amazing cultural art that goes back eight thousand years; Siniaka-Minia in the south, home to a large population of the endangered Kordofan giraffe; and Binder-Léré in the south-west. I really hope that if we can show the successes of Chad, people will realize what the country has to offer. I think there is an incorrect perception that it is just about conflict and poverty; that needs to be turned around. People need to see that it is a wonderful place.’
He’s also keen to reinforce the vital contribution of aviation to protected area management. ‘There are multiple different things that can be done,’ he says. ‘One of the projects we're asking MAF to look at doing with us is an aerial wildlife count, which involves flying quite low-level transects [transverse divisions along which measurements or observations are made]. We do that every two years, which helps us measure the success of our conservation efforts.
‘Similarly, aircraft are invaluable in the case of emergencies such as bushfires; when you have a plane, you can move quickly to see where the fires are and how they are progressing, and you can coordinate the different teams to tackle them. A plane can also help combat wildlife poaching and trafficking, with observers who can spot issues and communicate with teams on the ground. Counter-poaching is a dangerous activity and in the unfortunate case that someone is injured, you can get them to hospital if there's a plane around. So aviation is a massive impact multiplier that can really help with the conservation efforts; it has a huge role to play.’
Unfortunately due to rainy season, pilot Phil Henderson wasn’t able to take the team and their visitors to their exact destination. ‘I wished we could have landed at SCF’s Oryx Base airstrip, but it is a seasonal strip and was inundated at the time,’ he explains. ‘We were in contact with people on the ground who told us it had rained a lot the night before, so we decided to land at nearby Biltine. That was my first time there; it’s a nice strip, long and wide, but it didn’t have any tie down points so it wouldn’t have been prudent to leave the aircraft parked there overnight. I repositioned it 15 minutes away in Abéché where I was able to secure it and spend the night with missionary friends.’
The following day Phil returned to Biltine to collect the passengers. As the revised travel plans had prevented SCF’s visitors from visiting Oryx Base and doing a game drive the previous day, Phil and Henry arranged an overflight so they could see something of what they had missed. ‘We did a couple of circles over Oryx Base,’ Henry explains. ‘I gave some commentary about what they could see below, and explained some of the threats to the reserve and the Sahel in general. We managed to see some of the species we have reintroduced, including the ostrich and the dama gazelle. It was really spectacular.’
We are very pleased to have been able to support SCF with the flights, and to reorganise the logistics around the challenges of weather to help highlight the value of the work they are doing.