For rural, young men in Mali, elephant conservation is proving more attractive than being recruited by the Jihadi's , and is reducing conflict along the way.
The escalating conflict in Mali poses a real threat to the Gourma Elephants. The Mali Elephant Project is finding that adapting its methods to respond to the challenges, and the perspectives of the local people, has led to new, creative activities.
A new anti-poaching unit was created towards the end of 2012. It is ready for action and will be deployed as the ground troops secure the zone.
Project activities continue in the field because the war 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.
One major initiative has been mobilising young volunteers to create "vigilance networks" (réseaux de surveillants locaux) across the elephant range and perform project activities such as:
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.
Community mobilisation has also brought the different clans, ethnicities and factions together to debate, enhancing awareness of the wider issues at stake, and promoting a sense of unity between these groups. The vigilance networks serve to reinforce this.
These young men have proved invaluable in meeting an enormous challenge that at first glance seemed insurmountable.
The bridge and dam at Lake Gossi has broken (see map below) with the result that water has drained out of the lake and out of the lakes of the whole of the drainage way to the north, the "Gossi corridor". This means that herders from the river to the north, who usually migrate to this area to find pasture in the dry season will have to move to other areas, and particularly Lake Banzena, the only other perennial water source.
Lake Banzena is the only source of water for elephants at the end of the dry season and the risk is that the huge herds will drink the lake dry before the end of the dry season, leaving the elephants to die of thirst as happened in 2009.
To prevent this move towards Banzena, the project suggested constructing a fire-break running parallel to the river to prevent pasture adjacent to the river from burning, so that these herders do not have to leave the river zone. No sooner was this suggested, than the young men in the wider Banzena area set to work and have so far created a 120km long fire-break.
The local people say they are able to do this because the project gave them the camels for natural resource protection, and helped them with grain during the famine when they most needed it.
As one herder said "Everyone says thank you, as without this (the donation of grain) we would have died of hunger. May God protect you."
We are now organising the river communities in fire-watching and fire-fighting to protect this pasture, as well as extending the vigilance networks across the elephant range.
The Mali Elephant Project is a joint initiative of The Wild Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada. Further information can be found here:
The 550 (approximately) Mali elephants are an internationally important population representing 12% of West African elephants. They are the northernmost African elephants and make a unique migration that covers over 32,000km2, the largest range recorded for the species.