The year–long and now escalating conflict in Mali poses a real threat to the Gourma Elephants, so WILD Foundation, an SOS grantee, has adjusted its planning and on-the-ground work to anticipate issues that may arise. Originally awarded a Rapid Action Grant by SOS to train and deploy mobile anti-poaching teams, this activity has been put on hold until the conflict in the region calms down. Meanwhile the following article is an adaptation of an original blog post written by Dr. Susan Canney, Project Leader with the Mali Elephant Project in association with Nomba Ganame, Project Coordinator on the ground in Mali outlining other activities initiated by WILD Foundation. This article addresses the impact of the conflict on the elephant range; the status of the anti-poaching efforts and how the project is adapting through mobilising the young men of the area.
The map (right) shows the location of the French air strikes (week of 13th 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. 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. Furthermore, undertaking habitat protection activities such as fire-break construction, thus ensuring less human-elephant competition for resources of water and forage was prioritised. It was also agreed to support the community elders in spreading the message throughout the community and to the armed groups, that killing elephants steals from the local people. Additionally, agreements were made to extend the understanding of the human–elephant relationship and activities to resolve conflict across the elephant range and to enhance guarding of 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 the project has so far recruited have joined the armed groups. According to Canney, they regard working for the project as more ‘noble’. Essentially, there is a strong sense of pride in being able to provide for themselves and their families and in supporting the community. It is also a more sure path, as joining an armed group presents the risk of ending up on the losing side, pursued by the army and/or having to find ways to reintegrate into their communities.
The project's mobilisation strategy has brought the communities together to debate, enhancing awareness of the wider issues at stake, and promoting a sense of unity between the different clans, communities and ethnic groups in the area. The vigilance networks serve to reinforce this consolidation. 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) with the result that water has drained from the lake and from the lakes 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 most particularly Lake Banzena. To prevent this move towards Banzena, Canney's team has suggested constructing a fire-break running parallel to the river to prevent pasture adjacent to the river from burning, so that the herders do not have to leave the river zone. No sooner had this been suggested, than the young men in the wider Banzena area set to work and have so far created a 120km long fire-break (see images, right).
The local people say they are able to do this because they received camels through the project for natural resource protection activities, and the grain during the famine when they most needed it. Speaking on the severity of the situation, one Banzena herder expressed the gratitude of the community in straightforward terms:
“Everyone says thank you, as without this (the donation of grain) we would have died of hunger. May God protect you.”
The project is 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.