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New Biosphere Reserve in Mali Becomes One of the Largest Protected Areas in the World

Jul 1, 2020Featured, Mali Elephant Blog, Talking WILD

by Vance G. Martin


It is extremely gratifying to be able to report some good news from Mali! Many of you know the challenges we’ve faced – war, poaching, assassinations, bandits, drought, and more – so we are delighted to tell you that on 27 May 2020, the national Cabinet of Ministers adopted a law to both enlarge the Gourma Elephant Reserve (in central Mali) by three-and-a-half times, and also greatly strengthen the legislation so that it conforms to a much more effective Biosphere Reserve model.

Originally at 1.25 million hectares (or just over 3,000,000 acres), the “Partial Gourma Elephant Reserve” covered just a portion of the elephant range. It was designated in 1959 and the only forbidden activity was elephant hunting; no other human impact or activity was banned!

The new reserve boundaries would cover the entire elephant range. This range was identified by Save the Elephant’s GPS collar data of the 2000s, then enhanced by information on the changes in elephant movements documented by the Mali Elephant Project’s (MEP) community eco-guards. These shifts have occurred as a result of the elephants avoiding the areas where they were heavily poached in 2015 and 2016, as they compensated by moving further west into more populated areas. As a result, MEP has been working with these specific communities to raise awareness about how to live with elephants, and the kinds of activities that foster harmonious coexistence.

The new reserve would be 4,263,320 hectares (just over 10,500,000 acres), about the size of Switzerland or almost five times the size of Yellowstone National Park; and represents a 26% increase in protected area coverage for Mali!

The Biosphere Reserve concept designates numerous zones across a landscape to assure protection of habitat and species while meeting the needs of local human communities. Areas of vital elephant habitat, such as late-dry-season water, would be protected in core areas, surrounded by buffer zones and transition areas of regulated and sustainable use. The latter support the “elephant-centred” natural resource management systems (developed by local communities under government approved ”decentralization legislation”) which are the core of the model that the MEP has been developing since 2007. The aim of these systems is to protect and restore the productivity, diversity and resilience of the Gourma ecosystem, thereby protecting the key elephant habitat.

“Decentralization” in Mali has transferred land and natural resource management responsibilities from central government to local governments and communities to improve resource sustainability and facilitate more equitable resource distribution. Natural resources (e.g. pasture, forest, water, game, and fish) are managed through contracts known as “conventions.” Conventions are resource management agreements between the State, communes, and local resource user groups that set rules on natural resource management and use, and specify which party has rights to these resources and which party is responsible for enforcing those rules. The conventions are not legally-binding, but serve to facilitate communities’ collaboration on resources in the commons. These conventions have also proven to be an effective way for communities to work with local government to gain greater control over land use decisions and over the natural resources on which they depend.

There have been a few challenges with the conventions, however. One is the lack of familiarity with the relevant laws by rural communities. Another is that the security of communities’ rights to land and resources remains weak in the absence of true legal recognition for these local conventions and traditional/customary rules.

The new and strengthened legislation would provide the opportunity to remedy these issues for the area covered by the new Reserve, by providing the legal recognition that gives government rangers the mandate to help enforce local community natural resource conventions. At the same time, the MEP is on-hand to help communities develop these agreements, supported by the experience of those who already manage their resources in this way. Local communities will also be engaged in defining the boundaries of the core areas and in developing resource management plans that both respect the core areas and improve local livelihoods.

An example of how this might work is given here. It is an example of how legislation can both set society’s norms (e.g. wildlife protection) and also enable the development of workable solutions that are adapted to local circumstances. In this case decentralization legislation empowered local communities to develop governance systems that protect elephants and their habitat through regulating natural resource use, preventing degradation and promoting ecosystem restoration and resilience. New protected area legislation such as that being proposed in Mali, would reinforce this and promote the uptake of these governance systems across the elephant range.

This exciting and much needed new protected area expansion and legislation in Mali would also fit into an important global picture of the need for intact natural areas that has been made more evident by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has raised awareness of the direct links between degraded ecosystems and increased vulnerability to catastrophic events, and will be the subject of the next blog-post from the Mali Elephant Project.

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


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