As the growing military operation pushes deep into northern Mali in pursuit of Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, little attention has been paid to how the crisis is affecting the Gourma elephant herds who have wandered Mali’s deserts for millennia. The Gourma are the most northerly elephants in Africa, a remnant of the vast herds that once occupied an area of West Africa stretching from the Atlantic forests to the Sahara.
Now an endangered species, the elephants of the Gourma – an area between Timbuktu and Gao – survive the harsh, arid conditions of the Sahel by following a unique migratory path that takes them to Burkino Faso and back across an area of 32,000 square kilometres in search of food and water.
Thanks to a combination of remote location, the benign attitude of the local population, conservation efforts and the fact that their tusks are small and not really worth poaching for ivory, Gourma elephants have largely been spared the killing experienced by other elephant populations in Africa. However, drought, climate change and increased competition for water from the local populations and their livestock have significantly reduced the number of Gourma elephants – the current political instability and fighting in Mali jeopardising their survival even more.
Last year’s occupation of northern Mali by Islamist fighters and Tuareg separatists has been accompanied by a disturbing increase of poaching. “We hadn't experienced poaching until last year, when six elephants were killed,” says Dr Susan Canney, project leader of the Mali Elephant Project. “Poaching has increased to raise funds for the rebels through the sale of ivory, or for food. After the coup in March, the government foresters and police melted away. Hopefully they'll be back soon to ensure hunters don't start crossing the border from Burkina Faso, where elephant meat is eaten."
Before the coup, the government and the Mali Elephant Project had run a highly effective joint anti-poach unit involving government foresters working with "vigilance networks" consisting of young male volunteers in the local communities. With the foresters gone, the vigilance networks have played an increasingly important role in patrolling the elephant ranges around their communities, but they've been powerless to deter armed poaching. Since French and Malian ground troops secured areas of the elephant range in the past weeks, it's hoped that the vigilance networks can return to work.
As well as poaching, the fighting may also be affecting the elephants in other ways. Gourma elephants have an acute sense of sound and smell, with the ability to hear infrasonic sounds and pick up smells over distances of several miles. This not only allows them to communicate in the desert and sniff out water or food, but also gives them a useful early warning of approaching danger.
According to Dr Canney, the Gourma elephants are currently dispersed across their range in central north Mali between Douentza, Timbuktu and Goa. While there's no fighting in these specific areas, they are nevertheless relatively close to – or en route to – combat zones. With fighters traversing the desert, jets dropping bombs and helicopter gunships firing missiles, there are genuine concerns that the elephants' normal migratory patterns might be disrupted.
According to Ganame Nomba, project field manager for the Mali Elephant Project, the sound of the helicopters already appears to be disturbing the elephants, making them move around much more than normal.
“Many of the Jihadi fighters are fleeing on foot and hiding in the thicket forests, a preferred habitat for the elephants,” says Dr Canney. “It's difficult to know what impact these fleeing fighters will have, but there's bound to be disruption to the population in the short term.” But it's the long term threat facing the elephants that's of greater concern. The Gourma elephant population is estimated to be at just 550, and the violence could easily push the group to the limit of its endurance.
The first three weeks of Operation Serval, the military intervention in Mali, have succeeded in forcing the Islamist fighters from their strategic strongholds of Gao and Timbuktu, pushing them deeper into the desert. But Serval is just beginning. The Islamist fighters still pose a poaching threat and the deployment of increasingly heavy military machinery is bringing disruption to the normally peaceful lives of the Gourma elephants.
According to Dr Cannery, there would have been many more elephant killings over the last year had it not been for the local communities across the elephant range. “The Malian government must not only continue to support local people with anti-poaching teams, but it also needs to help local people sustainably manage and regenerate the natural resources on which both they and the elephants depend.”
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