This year the Mali elephants face an escalating challenge, as they are being aggressively targeted by international trafficking networks. For the first time, people outside the elephant range are directly contacting local people to try to persuade them to act as accomplices. It can be tempting for someone who has, for example, lost their business because of the conflict.
Thanks to the work of WILD, the International Conservation Fund of Canada, and our many partners, the local communities receive positive benefits from wise resource management that promotes ecosystem integrity (including elephant conservation). The local people understand that their well-being is best served by working together, and that fighting against elephant poaching also improves their physical security by combating lawlessness. The community cohesion generated by collective resource management improves their food, water, energy, and economic security. Studies have shown that livestock from communities protecting their water, pasture and forests are worth 50% more than those from communities that don’t have functioning resource management systems. At the same time, those managing their pasture are able to sell hay and charge outsiders for access to water and pasture. As they say, “we benefit twice: we have more pasture for ourselves and we raise money from others;” and in doing so they control the destructive impact of the large herds from outside the elephant range that belong to wealthy urban-dwellers.
Women collecting medicinal plants at Gossi
In addition to protecting pasture, those communities managing their resources collectively are closely protecting their forest resources and preventing the illegal cutting of trees and hunting of game species, including the near threatened Dorcas gazelle and Nubian bustard. They value forests for game and wildlife; firewood (and construction wood in the south); wild foods, medicinal plants, and commodities such as incense (Commiphora africana) and gum arabic (Acacia seyal). Protecting the forests protects the water holes at their center from siltation and evaporation, and provides forage for fattening animals. The elephants help in the harvest of these benefits as they shake leaves, seeds and fruits down from inaccessible branches. Sheep and goats feed around their feet, and the women follow them to gather up a harvest of wild foods and forage that can be sold in the local markets. Local people associate forests with rain and wildlife: for them it is the same, as they regard all those things as connected.
Parts of the umbrella thorn tree (Acacia radiana) harvested by the women, with the help of the elephants whose browsing
in the trees knocks the pods down for the goats to eat and women to collect
As well as potential sources of income from well managed resources, there is improved environmental security as “healthy” diverse environments are more productive and better able to withstand climatic variation.
The project is actively working with communities to reinforce this awareness, however building community solidarity and reinforcing the negative stigma attached to being labeled a thief will deter some, though not all. As ever, there are always the few who want to act in their own self-interest to the detriment of others, and the problem becomes how to constrain their actions.
Times of intense and continued instability require additional methods. People need to see that “the system” will deliver a high probability of detection, arrest and punishment. An armed capability to engage with well-armed poachers is essential. Experience shows us that when the military is actively patrolling through the elephant range, the poaching decreases. Local people call to say how pleased they are to see the presence of the army because it makes them feel safer. But the military is often called away to deal with incidents elsewhere in Mali, and so the project is working with the government to develop a paramilitary forester force, Mali’s equivalent of rangers. Ten new forester posts were created last year (5 fixed and 5 mobile) and 50 new foresters have been recruited to man them. The government is covering their salaries, arms, ammunition and uniforms, while the project is paying for their training – both military and in anti-poaching – plus installing a radio-communications system enabling them to communicate and co-ordinate operations aver this vast, remote area.