By Baba Ahmed
Motorcycle-riding poachers have killed at least 19 elephants over the past month, officials said Wednesday, marking a significant blow to a rare grouping that lives in a part of central Mali where al-Qaida and other extremists have been active.
It is believed there are only 350 to 700 elephants left in Mali, and those that remain are under growing threat not only from humans seeking their ivory but also from climate change and reduced rainfall, conservationists say.
"We have heard that the poachers are moving about two by two on motorcycles and killing the elephants in Gourma," said Soumana Timbo, assistant director of the government's conservation efforts, who confirmed the toll of at least 19 dead so far this year.
Timbo said he believed that poachers from elsewhere in the region were being assisted by locals in killing the elephants for their ivory.
The Gourma population of elephants is the northernmost on the African continent, according to the Wild Foundation. The animals normally travel between central Mali and the southern border with Burkina Faso as part of an annual migration. However, the elephants have been making strange movements in recent weeks, suggesting they sense danger from a predator, said Nomba Ganame, an elephant specialist with the foundation.
Gourma is located in a part of Mali that is not completely under government control because al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists are known to operate in the area. While most of the rebels were scattered by a French-led military operation in 2013, remnants continue to carry out roadside bomb attacks which have stymied efforts to protect the elephants.
"It's a security problem for our staff to go into this area. We want to go along with the Malian army," Timbo said. "We should be doing these kinds of patrols every two weeks."
Poaching deaths of elephants to meet demand for ivory particularly in China is an escalating crisis across Africa. A report released last year by Africa's leading elephant experts, including Save the Elephants, estimated that poachers killed 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012 on the continent.