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The Gourma Elephants of Northern Mali are threatened by danger from the skies and on the ground.

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Frontline Online: The Forgotten Victims of War

January 31st, 2013

by Lorna Howarth

The Ecologist's Lorna Howarth reports on news and action from the environmental frontline....

Protecting elephants provides young men with an alternative to following jihadis

There’s been a great deal in the media recently about the French infiltration of northern Mali to eradicate the threat from insurgents in the region who, it is alleged, are aligned with radical Islamist sects such as Boko Haram and Al Quaeda.

Malian musicians in particular have welcomed the support of the French army in flushing-out these terrorists who have threatened to cut the fingers off anyone caught playing a musical instrument. "The French military saved Mali from Islamists. I'm buying a French flag to put in front of my house, to say thank you," said Ngoni master-player, Bassekou Koyate. 

What often goes unreported is how war impacts on the natural world.

In the case of Mali, French airstrikes are taking place within the territory and natural migration routes of the Gourma elephant herd – Africa’s northernmost population of elephants which traverse 12,000 square miles every year in search of food and water. They are not only threatened from above by air strikes, but also on the ground as the  terrorists poach them for food.

However, these animals have been the subject of years of research by The Wild Foundation & the International Conservation Fund of Canada (ICFoC) lead by Dr Susan Canney, and together they have implemented an initiative that not only endeavours to protect the elephants, but also creates meaningful work for young Malian men, providing an alternative to them being recruited by jihadis. “None of the 520 young men that we have so-far recruited have joined the armed forces,” says Dr Canney.

The project gathers information about any elephant killings, including finding out who the perpetrators were, and conveys this information to their anti-poaching unit, so that they can better co-ordinate and anticipate further raids; it undertakes habitat protection activities such as fire-break construction to protect the parched land from fires that may result from aerial bombardment or other activities; they support community elders to spread the message to armed groups that killing elephants steals from local people (who participate in conservation work).

These ‘vigilance networks’ offer a real alternative to armed conflict for Malian men who are paid for their work by the Wild Foundation and ICFoC, giving them an income and higher status. The locals regard working for the project as ‘noble’ and it gives them a strong sense of pride in the wider community. So far, the project has created a 120km fire-break near Lake Gossi where the dam and bridge have been destroyed and precious water supplies lost.

The mobilisation strategy has brought the communities together to create an enhanced awareness of the issues at stake and thus consolidate the different ethnic communities in the area. The latest news is that the jihadis are fleeing through the area stealing whatever they can. The project has little infrastructure but they have stolen two sets of solar panels that power the water boreholes, meaning that the local people’s water supply is gravely threatened for the dry season.

Nonetheless, Dr Canney remains confident that the vigilance networks will extend across the entire elephant range. “The local people are the elephants’ main hope and vice versa in the long term,“ said Dr Canney.  

Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing agency:


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