By Joanna M. Foster
As the recent surge in ivory poaching has shown, it's hard to keep elephants safe during times of relative peace and prosperity. So imagine trying to protect them in the midst of a bloody civil war.
That's exactly the situation Susan Canney and her colleagues at the WILD foundation found themselves in last year when troops in northwestern Mali staged a coup d'etat that resulted in almost a year of separatist rebellion and widespread conflict.
"After the coup and the subsequent fighting, all government presence disappeared from our project area," recounts Dr. Canney. "Guns were suddenly everywhere and we found ourselves in a desperate, lawless place. None of it boded well for elephants."
The 550 elephants of Mali are an extremely special population. They are the most northern elephants in Africa, and their annual migration to find food and water in the harsh desert-like conditions of the Sahel is the longest elephant migration in the world. Mali elephants have short tusks and strangely long legs. They are excessively shy around humans.
"We're not quite sure how this population survived, when all the other elephants in this part of Africa were wiped out" said Dr. Canney. "We think it may have something to do with how wary the elephants are around humans, and the fact that the climate here and the elephants' meager diet make their tusks very fractured and fragile, so they are almost worthless on the black market. If you tried to carve them, they would just shatter."
Despite the elephants' cautious nature and the low value of their tusks, the outbreak of fighting in Mali took its toll on the fragile population. In all, it is believed that six elephants were poached for food and/or for their ivory, which was then sold for weapons. More....