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Concerns grow for Mali's elephants as war escalates

23/01/2013 15:02:46

Until 2012 the Gourma elephants escaped the ivory poaching crisis that is sweeping across Africa. In 2012 three were killed, despite the poor quality of their tusks. Image courtesy of Carlton Ward/WILD foundation.

The Mali Elephant Project working hard to save Mali's elephants
January 2013. The war in Mali has escalated recently and France has now intervened. The human tragedy here has been growing for many years, but amidst the poverty, drought and hardship, a population of some 550 elephants, known as the ‘Gourma elephants', have survived on the edge of the Sahara.

Rebel armies funded by poaching across Africa
Profits from the illegal ivory trade are known to fuel terrorist groups like the Lord's Resistance Army, the Janjaweed militia and Al Shabaab. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say. There are concerns that the elephants may get caught up in the war and that rebel forces in Mali might try to go down the same road as the rebel groups above and threaten the extremely vulnerable population.

Map showing the elephants range and locations 
that the French airforce has bombed.
Click map for a larger version.
The Wild Foundation has been working to conserve the Gourma elephants for more than 10 years. Susan Canney, the project leader, writes:

"The map shows the location of the French air strikes (week of 13 January) in relation to the elephant range. It is expected that the Gourma region will be secured in the coming weeks as the effects of the French and West African ground troops support the current efforts of the Malian army. Our anti-poaching team was created towards the end of 2012. It is ready for action and will be deployed as the ground troops secure the zone. We have raised funds for initial training and integration of the anti-poaching unit with local communities, and more refined training is the next step."

Project activities continue in the field because the conflict is focused in the towns. The vast area and dispersed populations are challenging in peace-time, but are an asset in times of conflict, and the local population continue life as best they can.

The project has adapted its methods to respond to the challenges, and the perspectives of the local people. This has led to new, creative activities. One major initiative has been mobilising the young men to create "vigilance networks" (réseaux de surveillants locaux) across the elephant range and undertake many other project activities.

These include:

  • Gathering information about any elephant killings, including the perpetrators, and conveying this to the anti-poaching unit
  • Undertaking habitat protection activities such as fire-break construction, thus ensuring less human-elephant competition for resources of water and forage
  • Supporting the community elders in spreading the message throughout the community and to the armed groups, that killing elephants steals from the local people
  • Extending the understanding of the human -elephant relationship and activities to resolve conflict across the elephant range
  • Guarding project equipment

This provides a counter to the recruitment by the jihadis of the young men, who are lured by money and the status of having an occupation. None of the 520 young men that we have so far recruited have joined the armed groups. They regard working for the project as more ‘noble', and they there is a strong sense of pride in being able to provide for themselves and their families, and in what they are able to do to benefit the community. It is also less risky, as joining an armed group risks ending up on the losing side, pursued by the army and/or having to find ways to reintegrate into their communities.

Go to the following websites for more details.

Mali's elephants
The Gourma elephants are believed to be the most northerly population of elephants in Africa since the loss of the Atlas Mountain's population in the 1970's, and are remnants of a much larger population that once extended across the entire north of Africa. Hunting by man, expansion of the human footprint and resource degradation, and climatic changes have reduced their numbers and range considerably. Today there are estimated to be around 350 remaining individuals.

Our thanks to Susan Canney, The Wild Foundation and The International Conservation Fund of Canada


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