Protecting the Desert Elephants of Mali during War and Peace: A Network of International, Regional, National and Local Partnerships

By Susan Canney, Nomba Ganame and Vance G. Martin

One of Mali’s most unique natural treasures is its herd of “desert elephants.” This amazing elephant population has survived under the harshest of conditions, when all the others around it have disappeared.  It is now the northern-most herd of African elephants, and one of only two populations of desert elephants (the other being in Namibia). To survive, they make the longest and most unusual circular migration ever recorded of all elephants, in order to find water, food, shade, shelter, and minerals. The migration covers around 34,000 km (larger than Belgium), and even crosses from Mali into Burkina Faso and back. The Mali elephants represent 12% of all elephants living in West Africa, and they are VERY vulnerable.

Vulnerabilities are of course the harsh geo-physical conditions - -high temperatures, frequency of drought, scarce food source, etc – but social upheaval in the past three years added immense additional pressure. A combination of a rebellion by the Tuareg people and instability at national level caused by an army coup created fertile conditions for a jihadist invasion. During 2014, Mali was described in the New York Times as being “the front line of the global war on terrorism.”  The jihadists came from throughout North Africa, empowered by the fall of Libya that unleashed an immense amount of weaponry into the hands of fundamentalists.

The core of the elephant range -- the Gourma Region of Central Mali, south of Timbuktu and below the bend in the Niger River – was in the middle of the conflict, and was essentially lawless for 14 months.  It took a concerted push by the French Army (and continuing involvement of a United Nations force, MINUSMA/UNPOL) to save Mali from being completely lost to the fundamentalists. Post-conflict, as the nation re-builds, the area suffers from ongoing insecurity and banditry. There is hope that the signing of the Peace Accord on the 20th June 2015 will bring more stability, however, there are still extremist groups that have not signed, and the jihadists continue launching sporadic attacks.

Migrating herds. Photo credit: The WILD Foundation.

The Mali Elephant Project (MEP) began in 2003 as a partnership between The WILD Foundation, Save the Elephants (STE), and The Environment and Development Group (whose role was finished in 2005). As of 2006, with the initial research done, STE became less active and WILD assumed full responsibility for the development of community-based natural resource management in the Gourma.  A long-term accord was signed with MaliGov, and in 2010 WILD was joined by the International Conservation Fund of Canada as an integral partner. Other significant sponsors have included the USFWS African Elephant Fund, l'Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux du Gabon; the Convention on Migratory Species, the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative and Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, the US Embassy in Mali, Tusk Trust and many other smaller foundations. Poaching was never an issue and great strides were made in creating a highly successful, resilient, community-based NRM/wildlife programme that continued throughout the conflict.

The first serious incidence of elephant poaching occurred in January 2012. Killings were initially kept at a relatively low level by a well-coordinated, community response, however for the last year the Mali elephants have been subjected to an escalation in poaching which has become especially severe in the last 6 months as the elephants are being targeted by international trafficking networks.

The central aspect of the strategy to protect the elephants is empowerment of local communities.  This community-based natural resource management has numerous elements that create its effectiveness, including continuous consultations with inter-ethnic council of elders, constant coordination between community, regional and national government leaders, new community accords taken into national law, and a uniquely developed education and outreach programme deployed throughout all the schools in the region.

The main field-based “action-element” created by the MEP is a network of over 500 members of (unarmed) “brigades de surveillance” that operate throughout the elephant range to look for suspicious activity, discover incidents, and learn identities of perpetrators. Despite being paid only the equivalent of food, none have joined the jihadists groups (who were paying $30-50/day) because they regard this occupation as more “noble,” it carries more local status. They collect information about the elephants – location and numbers -- and watch over all the natural resources that are part of the new community accords. These accords set out the rules of use for resources - such as water, forest, pasture, game species and wild foods - upon which their livelihoods depend and which are severely degraded through over-use.

Consulting local communities. Photo credit: The WILD Foundation.

When the brigades have information of suspicious or incriminating behavior, this information goes both to the Council of Elders and to regional/national government sources.  This is often dangerous work by men committed to their communities and to the elephants.  It must be emphasized, however, that there is absolutely no armed anti-poaching capacity to act on poaching-related information.

To that end, the MEP core partners – NGOs, MINUSMA and the Mali Government -- are developing a programme that will train and deploy a team of 50 government foresters (the Malian equivalent of rangers) as an effective local presence. In Mali the foresters have military training and can provide the patrols and armed back-up required to act on information provided by the communities and brigades. Their presence will also help improve security in the area as they work with the army posted in the area to protect the people from theft and banditry.

The future of the elephants and the people are intimately entwined. Not only do they both thrive on healthy, diverse ecosystems, but they also require peace and security.

The illegal wildlife trade is decimating populations of elephants, rhinos and other threatened species. The role that local communities have to play in combating this holocaust is increasingly being recognized. Providing an occupation for unemployed young men as brigade members has multiple benefits: it increases security, prevents radicalization, reverses the degradation in natural resources as well as protecting elephants by providing the crucial information required for the government to do its job.

Susan Canney is the director of the Mali Elephant Project; Nomba Ganame, is the field manager at the Mali Elephant Project; and Vance G. Martin is the president of The WILD Foundation in  Boulder, CO.