The following article is an adaptation of an original blog post written by Dr. Susan Canney, Project Leader with the Mali Elephant Project initiated by WILD Foundation; an SOS Rapid Action Grantee.
The main wave of the warfare in Mali has washed over the Gourma Region and the elephant range, and its immediate threat is diminished due to foreign intervention. However, mop-up work is still occurring in the Gourma as some of the jihadis and rebels are in hiding in the area, trying to flee. The next main phase of counter-insurgency will now begin, which is less certain and far more challenging, but mostly centered in the North it is hoped.
In the last year there were the first few incidents of poaching, totaling just 6. Thus far, the communities have managed to stem the tide, and we are now poised to deploy the specially-trained, anti-poaching team, that have been initiated in partnership with the Mali government and supported by numerous sponsors including SOS- Save Our Species.
In addition to the threat of poaching, the fighting may also be affecting the elephants in other ways.
All elephants have a very acute sense of sound and smell including an exceptional ability to detect vibrations and pick up smells over long distances. This not only allows them to communicate, and sniff out water or food but also gives them a useful early warning of approaching danger (see www.elephantvoices.org for an overview of elephant communication).
Unlike elephants in other parts of Africa or India, the Gourma elephants are extremely shy of human contact, and easily stressed by such things as the sound or smell of a vehicle. They spend much of their time in thicket-forests where they find food, water, shelter from the sun and refuge from human activity.
Unsurprisingly they didn’t like the helicopters as they flew overhead to Timbuktu but apart from that the elephants are mostly calm. Canney and her team had been wondering whether there would be an impact of the jihadis hiding in the forests but so far there has been no trouble. However, the elephants in the “Gossi corridor” to the north-east of the elephant range have been making more displacements than usual and seem agitated.
It is thought this might be due to the increased number of people fleeing in that area. It is the only part of the elephant range where Canney's team has not yet started working with the local communities, and a higher proportion of people joined the jihadis in this area. They are now too scared to return home as they will be handed over to the army, and so are hiding in the forests and trying to flee. Elephants may well be finding people in the forests that are their usual sanctuaries and moving elsewhere to find an ‘empty forest’.
At the moment the Malian army is in the elephant range rooting out the jihadis who are hiding in the forests around the lakes and waterholes, guided by information from the local people. Broken down cars full of drugs, alcohol and counterfeit money are being discovered: twenty-eight were found in one place in the south-east of the elephant range.
Once this operation has been mostly completed, Canney's anti-poaching team, funded in part by an SOS-Save Our Species Rapid Action Grant, will be able to go into action in the Gourma.