Camels: the key to sustainable elephant conservation in the Gourma

Providing camels to the local community means that they are no longer dependent on the project and can operate autonomously. This sustainable self-sufficiency is the aim of all projects, and it means that local communities can respond to unforeseen situations themselves. An example of this occurred when the bridge and dam at Lake Gossi broke in 2012 draining the lakes of the “Gossi corridor” to the north. It meant that herders from the river, who having used up the pasture close to the river, or lost it to fire would seek out places in the Gourma with water and pasture. With no water in the Gossi corridor, they  would try to use Lake Banzena instead. To prevent this we suggested constructing 120km fire-break running parallel to the river to protect pasture adjacent to the river from burning, so that these herders did not have to leave the river zone. No sooner had we suggested this, than the young men in the wider Banzena area set to work because “we had helped them with camels”. See http://www.wild.org/blog/protecting-the-mali-elephants-from-war/

This rest of this post is to describe the tasks performed by the camels, and their centrality in enabling the local population of the Gourma to protect the elephants, protect the elephant migration route, prevent degradation  and restore habitats.

1. Avoiding habitat loss through fire prevention

Local people cannot protect their habitats without camels. The 9 month dry season means that the vegetation soon becomes tinder dry and vulnerable to fire. From December onwards the tiniest stray spark from making tea, making charcoal, or throwing away a cigarette butt can result in fires that sweep through the grasslands consuming hundreds of square miles of potential fodder.  Preventing the loss of pasture and forest prevents the degradation that results from annual fires and makes it easier for local people to set aside elephant habitat.  The photograph below shows the impact of a firebreak.

The work is long and arduous for the local people. The first step is to drag a thorn tree back and forth to loosen the vegetation and mark the guideline of the fire-break, as shown in the photo below.

The next step is for a team of around 12 people to rake the vegetation away to the side of the guideline.

Any remaining vegetation is removed by controlled burning, as in the newly-constructed firebreak in the image below.

2. Preventing the illegal over-exploitation of wildlife, plant & tree species

As elsewhere in Mali outside protected areas, game species are rare in the Gourma. There are only two forester posts to cover an area the size of Switzerland with no vehicles. The camels allow our brigades to patrol and check for illegal resource use.

They work together with the government foresters who provide the enforcement, while the community brigades provide the eyes and ears by being able to cover much greater ground than the few foresters. In this way the team is able to enforce both local resource management rules and national law. The photo below was taken before the coup when all government presence retreated to the capital, leaving the community to continue working courageously on its own.

The photograph below shows an illegal firewood operation that was discovered by one of our patrols.

3. Protecting the elephants

Camels enable the local population to collect information on any elephant killings and bring it to the attention of the authorities much faster than if they had to travel on foot. This can make all the difference in apprehending the poachers, as with the poached elephant below.

4. Keeping Lake Banzena free of human occupation and livestock

Lake Banzena is the only source of water accessible to the elephants at the end of the dry season, making it the lynchpin of the elephant migration, but throughout the 1990s and 2000s the Lake had been drying sooner and sooner as human and livestock pressure mounted. Our studies, however, revealed that the vast majority of this impact came from far away. In 2009, 96% of the livestock using Lake Banzena in 2009 belonged to wealthy, urban dwellers living hundreds of kilometers away. There were over 50,000 cattle at Lake Banzena at the end of the dry season in the years 2008, 2009 and 2010, when the lake either dried prematurely or very nearly dried. In the former case, the situation was saved by a rain shower 30km to the south, which was just enough to sustain the elephants until the rains.

In 2010, the Mali Elephant Project helped the population to relocate to a new area with good pasture and clean water in return for the camel-mounted patrols helping the foresters to keep Lake Banzena free of human activity.

More information can be found in the following illustrated posts:

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