Three things have been keeping the elephants alive: the local people, Malian military patrols and the elephants themselves.
Last year the sudden dramatic escalation of poaching in the first half of 2015 was the result of a new development whereby international trafficking networks were directly targeting individuals in the elephant range to recruit them as guides and accomplices. At the same time local military were re-deployed to deal with unrest elsewhere in the country related to the signature of the Peace Accord between the Government and Tuareg rebels, and personnel changes in the Malian government delayed the training and deployment of the anti-poaching rangers, substantially increasing the Mali Elephant Project’s (MEP’s) workload.
While working on getting the rangers operational, the MEP continues to engage local communities (as funds and time allowed) to provide a continual reminder:
- of the benefits of solidarity and that fighting poaching improves security;
- of the benefits of elephants and of coming together to improve livelihoods for the benefit of all through collective resource management;
- that those who poach are thieves as they steal for themselves that which belongs to the community;
- and that poaching does not go undetected: the community knows who the poachers are.
Like people everywhere, there is a spectrum from those who are completely law-abiding to those who are criminal and need to be constrained by law enforcement. Between these extremes there are those who might be tempted if they feel they are in a situation where it’s “everyone for themselves”, as is often the case when there is an absence of government, lawlessness, uncertainty and threat to their security and livelihood, and the likelihood that their actions would be undiscovered.
The MEP’s community work counters this by building solidarity and social cohesion through helping communities come together to create mutually beneficial systems of resource management that require collective work but benefit the livelihoods of all. Elders which constitute the management committees establish the social norms, including the branding of poachers as thieves, while the “brigades de surveillance” ensure that illegal activity is detected.
However law enforcement is also required to deal with those who kill elephants regardless of social norms, as well as to demonstrate the government presence that supports the rule of law, and supports community collective action.
Mali had no capacity to deal with the advent of elephant poaching in 2012. Since then the MEP has worked with the government to create a new ranger force from scratch.
To cover the period until the ranger force was operational, the MEP raised money for patrols by the Malian military from local bases in the elephant range, who are so poorly resourced that they require additional money for fuel and food to be able to leave their bases. These were greeted with much enthusiasm by the local community who suffer from the thieving and lawlessness.
The elephants have been helping by behaving very differently this year. Normally they would be in the north of their range moving between the series of semi-permanent water bodies formed by rainwater that collects in depressions. These lakes and drainage-ways are surrounded by dense thicket forest, which although it only covers a tiny proportion of the land surface, is a vital habitat for the elephants who spend over 90% of their time there, because not only do they find water and food, but also shade and refuge from humans. Normally they prefer the lakes and forests in the remote north where they are far from human settlement and their interaction with humans is minimized. As one lake dries they move on to the next until they all congregate together at Lake Banzena to pass the last few months of the dry season, as this is the only lake that holds water year-round, and is accessible to elephants.
This year, however they are not frequenting the forests and lakes of the previously tranquil north, even though good rains meant they are full of water. The elephants have changed their behaviour. Apart from a small group of around 14-20 in the Gossi corridor, they are gathered in large groups in the centre of their range, in the more secure areas close to the main road.
This may be because they remember that last year they experienced very heavy poaching in those northern areas, particularly in the vicinity of Banzena, and so have tried to avoid those areas. Another reason may be that there are jihadists and bandits hiding in their favourite forests. Or it may be a combination of both.
The left hand map shows the locations of poaching incidents in 2015 in relation to the elephant migration route shown in grey, as recorded by Save the Elephants’ GPS collar data. The right-hand map shows the 2016 distribution of elephants in red in February (as an example) compared to where they would usually be shown in green. As the year progressed elephants have been gradually moving to join the large herd at Inani. Usually they would spend several months at Lake Banzena but this year only one group of about 75 individuals “commutes” 35km from Inani to Banzena to drink but does not stay.
Unfortunately staying in the centre of their range brings them close to human settlements and increases the risk of conflict, particularly as the elephants are reported to be more aggressive and restless than usual. A large herd of over 100 spent the first months of the year at Lake Korarou far to the west of their usual range, in an area they haven’t used since the 1970s when human population densities were less. Unfortunately the people in these areas are not used to living with elephants and two people were killed through surprising elephants in a thicket forest. The MEP immediately visited the area and together with local dignitaries held community meetings to discuss the reasons, how to prevent such occurrences, how the MEP is working to prevent these kind of tragedies, express condolences and offer a small gift to the families afflicted. The communities of this area expressed their wish for help to develop the resource management systems established by the MEP.
As a result of these three things poaching rates decreased from an average of 9.43 elephants killed per month from December 2014 to June 2015, to 3.90 elephants killed per month from July 2015 to April 2016.
This is despite a worsening security situation due to the emergence in 2015 of a new jihadist group called the Macina Liberation Front, allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One indicator of the level of security is the number of attacks registered in the elephant range by the Long War Journal which has increased sharply from none in 2014 to the numbers shown in the graph below. More attacks undermine the rule of law, deter government presence and embolden poachers.
Although poaching levels must be reduced further, this reduction extends the estimated date of population extirpation by almost 3 years, from August 2018 to June 2021. This assumes the current rate of loss continues, however it is unknown whether this would be the case. It may be that as elephant numbers are reduced, they are more difficult to find, poachers are less likely to encounter them, and the rate of loss slows. On the other hand this may make little difference because information on elephant locations is shared across the elephant range, and the poachers are willing and able to travel; or with a concerted well-resourced campaign it could accelerate.
More information is required and the gathering of that information and acting upon it will be the task of the rangers … Who will hopefully be in action very soon.