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Mali Elephant Project: How much nature do humans need to survive?

Dec 11, 2019Featured, Mali Elephant Blog, Nature Needs Half, Talking WILD

by Susan Canney

Director of the Mali Elephant Project

by Sophia Leroy

Programme Assistant, Mali Elephant Project

For local communities living alongside elephants in the Gourma region of Mali, it would be close to 10 million acres. At the minimum. That’s the area that encompasses the elephant migration route. Like other desert-adapted species that live in particularly harsh and arid environments, these elephants require a vast area to survive, moving according to the availability of natural resources. In the dry season, when water is scarce, they tend to concentrate in the north and west of the range where a handful of small lakes still retain water. As soon as the rains arrive, they set off south where vegetation is more abundant, but where water isn’t available all year round.


A joyful reunion. Photo © Carlton Ward


Over the years, elephants have increasingly been forced into contact with their human neighbours as a result of human-induced desertification; habitat loss and degradation which has sometimes lead to direct conflict. That is not say that the people of the elephant range dislike or fear elephants; on the contrary, they understand that their own fate is linked fate of their giant neighbours is key to their own survival, that a healthy environment depends on their continued existence and that, like all other species on earth, they too have the right to life.


“If elephants disappear it means the environment is no longer good for us” -Malian villager


This has enabled the Mali Elephant Project (MEP) to use elephants as a unifying focus to collaboratively work out equitable solutions to ensuring human-elephant peaceful co-existence; and to reinforce these through the establishment of a Biosphere-type Reserve that will encompass the entire elephant migration route while engaging local communities in its enforcement.

A Partial Elephant Reserve already exists, but only prohibits the hunting of protected game species (all other human activity is allowed), only covers 25% of the elephant migration route, and has seen no management or enforcement for decades. The proposed Biosphere Reserve would include a core protected area plus the protected habitats of the elephant migration route with buffer areas around crucial elephant habitat, and transition areas where human activity is regulated by community natural resource management systems. The reserve would be managed by communities working in synergy with government foresters to ensure compliance, with the project mediating the agreements required to establish the core area. This increase in the elephant reserve increased Mali’s protected area coverage by around 26%.

Following its approval by Parliament, the new Reserve legislation is now in the final stages before it comes into force.

The map below shows the extent of the existing Partial Elephant Reserve (dashed brown line) and the boundaries of the new Biosphere Reserve (thick orange line), in relation to the elephant migration route. This is shown as a “heatmap” in which the red patches show the areas most favoured by elephants, followed by yellow and then green. Black dots represent human settlements, including main towns, showing how the elephants have found refuge in areas with least human activity.



The Mali Elephant Project is a joint initiative of the WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

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