Mali is a beautiful, landlocked desert country in North West Africa. Perhaps best known for its rich cultural diversity, Mali is also home to the most northerly elephant herd in living in one of the harshest environments in the world, the arid Sahel. As a result the annual migration of a Malian elephant is vast – circumscribing an area of over 32,000 square kilometers between the Niger river on the north to the Burkina Faso/Mali border in the south.
The elephant migration pattern is a result of the elephants’ need to access seasonal resources that ensure their year to year survival. They spend 95% of their time in specific “concentration areas” of key resources (water, food and refuge) and the rest of the time moving rapidly between them. Their long legs help them withstand the huge migration but it takes its toll: high infant mortality means this population seems to have remained relatively stable since the 1950s – elephant population size is provisionally estimated at 340 – 700 animals – although very vulnerable to any increase in stress.
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The route can be summarized as follows:
Northern waterholes & thicket, dry season habitat – Survival in the dry season depends on access to water. Elephants move between the small lakes of the northern part of the elephant range, why progressively dry, before concentrating around Lake Banzena, the one lake which retains water all year round. It is therefore the keystone of the migration and anything that increases the reliance of livestock and elephants on Banzena will increase the probability that it will dry prematurely with catastrophic consequences for the elephants who, unlike livestock and people, have no other source of late dry season water.
The South – wet season habitat
The abundant and varied forage of the south in the wet season (Jun-Sep) helps the elephants to gain the weight that will last them through the long dry season. However there are no lakes and when the rains finish, the elephants have to move north. This is also the most densely populated part of the elephant range and the migration is shaped by the avoidance of human settlements and activities. Human encroachment onto the elephant migration route is now threatening to block their path in four key areas, but most crucially in the “Porte des Elephants” a pass through the hills, which would lead to a sudden increase in conflict. Action to prevent this is essential as solutions are limited once human settlement becomes permanent.