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How learning from elephants and the people of Mali can dramatically improve the world

2016 was the worst year ever. That’s the refrain, at least. And by some measures, a decently accurate epitaph. As we stand on the precipice of a new year, and take stock of the world around us, it’s difficult to see beyond the relentless maelstrom of atrocities. The unspeakable suffering of a million people trapped in the ruins of Aleppo. An extinction crisis that CNN proclaimed last week is worse than we think. Escalating tensions between the US and China. Sickly economies and even worse financial prognoses. In 2016, the underlying problems that have roiled so long just beneath public attention, finally and abruptly exploded into full view.

There’s a case to be made that 2016 wasn’t, in fact, the worst year ever. It just happened to be the year many of us woke up to the nightmare other people and lifeforms have been living for so long.

Now that the planet has our attention, the question upon which our collective future may depend is this:

What are we going to do better in 2017?

If you need a little guidance to get your answer started, I’d recommend turning your attention to the Gourma region of Mali in West Africa.


Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa, its people excruciatingly dependent upon a harsh and unpredictable climate for just enough rain to grow enough food to survive. In recent years, it has suffered the upheaval of a violent Islamic insurgency that has sent shockwaves through the historically stable establishment and frayed the communal bonds of trust and kinship.

From our vantage point in the West, behind electronic screens that typically cost more than the average person in Mali earns in a year, it is a tempting, even for the best of us, to quietly dismiss such a place as “undeveloped,” “irrelevant,” and “backward.”

We do so at our own peril.

Mali Elephant Project ranger watching over the elephants nearby Douentza.

Mali Elephant Project ranger watching over the elephants nearby Douentza.

Like all places, Mali is home to something sacred. In the far reaches of its deserts, a rare herd of desert elephants, one of just two remaining, treks counter-clockwise around an ancient migration route, the longest of any elephant herd. Sharing the land with the herd, is a quarter of a million locals, mostly nomads and subsistence herders, who look upon the elephants with reverence, respect, and something akin to a sense of partnership. They know that if elephants disappear, it is a sign that the ecosystem is less able to support life and therefore less able to support people.

Mali Elephant Project April-May 2004 Banzena Photo by: Carlton Ward Jr with Wild Foundation

The people here have very little. If their sole aim in life was to acquire more for themselves, it would be easy for them to regard elephants as competitors. Instead, they cultivate a belief that every species has a right to exist, that each animal contributes something special to the land. A blessing, or as they say, baraka. If elephants were to disappear, their baraka would go with them, and the land would be diminished, and less equipped to sustain life.

Indeed, this blessing carries over into other aspects of life in the Gourma. Though the desert is occupied by nearly a quarter of a million people from eight ethnicities and dozens of clans, the elephants have served as a converging symbol around which different groups have convened to better manage their natural resources for the benefit of people and elephants.

Dr. Susan CanneyDr. Susan Canney, director of the Mali Elephant Project, is sometimes asked, “Why does your work in resource management need elephants? Surely you can achieve all those things without invoking the need to protect elephants.” Her response is telling: Without a “unifying element” that is unquestioningly respected by all, community resource management is “vulnerable to derailment by multiple agendas as there are always those who will try to get more than their fair share.”


The elephants help “establish limits that apply to everyone, equally.”


Additionally, operating within the boundaries imposed by a representative, elected council of elders, studies have shown that livestock from communities protecting their natural resources are worth 50% more than those from communities who don’t share this resource management system. It is also clear that the communities with the most social cohesion gain the most benefit from collective resource management. It means that putting the environment first has paid economic as well as social dividends.

In our fragmenting society, splintering ever more rapidly into irreconcilable factions, who doesn’t look on a little wistfully at the role occupied by the Mali elephant in the communities of the Gourma? Who doesn’t wonder what such sacred and unifying boundaries could accomplish in Western society? At the end of 2016, when so much seems wrong with the world, maybe it’s time to look to the elephants and communities in Mali, and rethink some of our own policies and priorities as we head into the New Year.

If your vision of the world is aligned with that of the Mali Elephant Project, consider a gift now. Your support is what makes this important and groundbreaking work possible.


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