When I was asked to come to Mali to train the new Anti-Poaching Brigade charged with protecting the last herd of West African desert elephants, I knew I would be learning as much as I would be teaching. I also knew that many people expected me to launch a war. Quite literally.
This would be Mali’s first anti-poaching unit dedicated to protecting the elephants, and the first formal anti-poaching training for that country’s rangers and other armed services. Not only would we need to train the teams, but we would have to figure what “doctrine”, or combination of strategies, operations, tactics, skills and competencies would be most appropriate for the situation.
That would mean first understanding the infrastructure, the ecosystem, the terrain, the needs and challenges of the different communities, the existing capabilities of the chosen protectors, the political will and available resources of the government and partners, and, of course, the threats, including all the different aspects of the poaching and trafficking business both locally and regionally.
If that wasn’t enough of a hill to climb, we would have to take into account that the elephants themselves don’t behave as “normal” African elephants do, moving around within a well-defined conservation area. Instead, these herds go on an epic circular migration over the course of a year, through a range of over 32,000km2, across borders, through vastly different terrain and amongst completely different ethnicities, tribes and cultures.
Finally, and just to make a stunningly daunting task seem absolutely impossible, we would have to deal with the fact that the country is recovering from a full blown war and in the grip of a long-running and worsening terrorist insurgency – with the elephant range being ground zero for this conflict. It is currently the United Nations’ most dangerous peace-keeping mission.
In spite of all of this there was good news too. Great success had already achieved against all the odds in protecting the elephants and their habitat. This was the result of WILD Foundation’s ground-breaking and outstanding community conservation programme, the Mali Elephant Project.
For eight years, under the directorship of Dr. Susan Canney of Oxford University and field manager, Nomba Ganame, the project had taken a different approach to protecting the elephants. Instead of trying to carve out and “fortify” areas that would be exclusive to the elephants, an impossible task in itself given the fact that elephants and communities had been co-existing and mingling since time immemorial, they realised that these elephants would only survive if they worked with the local people to ensure that co-existence continued. They also realised that this was possible because the communities associated elephants with healthy ecosystems and, therefore, their own well-being.
Through the tragedy and chaos of recent times, it is easy to forget that this area has been known since ancient times for its love of wisdom. Timbuktu, at the Northern extreme of the area has been one of the greatest centres of learning and repositories of written wisdom in Africa. It is not for nothing that one of the first efforts made by the Jihadists, when they took control of Timbuktu in 2014, was to destroy the library of manuscripts that had been lovingly preserved and cared for over the ages.
This ancient understanding of the people of “The Gourma”, that the elephant brings food, water and prosperity, is not built on myth, legend or children’s tales. It comes from a deep understanding of the ecosystem within which these people live. And it is upon this understanding and the work of the Mali Elephant Project that our anti-poaching law enforcement solutions and training have to be built.
Looking at the training we have embarked upon, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that we are waging all-out war. Our teams are armed and often armoured. They are trained in military operations and tactics, in spotting IED’s and finding landmines, in combat tracking, interdiction and much more, and not only are they dressed as soldiers, but they are in actual fact military servicemen. All of the hardware and training however, is meant to protect not only the elephants and their habitat, but the rangers themselves and also the community from the extreme elements who wish to force them, through brutality, to give up their ancient culture and traditions.
When the invading extremists took control of the region after the rebellion that followed the flood of fighters and weapons into the area after the fall of Ghadaffi in Libya, the elephant herds were immediately targeted. For the first three years the poaching was contained by the local community systems but in 2015, external trafficking networks aggressively targeted the elephant range at the same time as security deteriorated and 84 out of only a few hundred remaining were killed in just a year. Although the project has managed to bring down the rate of loss, the threat has continued and an intelligent and tailor made doctrine needs to be worked out and implemented through equipping anti-poaching units and getting them into the field on operations as quickly as possible.
To protect the elephants, the greatest resource and most powerful weapon is the community. The rangers are taught proactive investigation methods which work harmoniously with the existing well-developed relationship that the Mali Elephant Project has built with the communities. A community that understands the importance of the elephants and experiences benefits to their health and happiness is only too happy to keep an eye out for poachers. The community can be an ally or an enemy and it all depends on how they are treated. Respect and understanding are the starting point and formed the basis of developing solutions that protected elephants and benefited local people. This type of community conservation then provides the foundation forgoing after the criminal elements using intelligence driven methods to build a clear picture of who exactly is doing the poaching. It is the only realistic long-term solution.
Unfortunately, elephants don’t vote and therefore protecting them means demonstrating their importance to the health of the local environment and as a cornerstone of the community’s health and prosperity.
Whilst assuring peace and security, rule of law, good governance and prosperity are crucially important, they are no more important than the people they aim to protect. There is much the world can learn from the people and the elephants of the Gourma.