By Alex Duval Smith
Survival of unique Gourma desert elephants threatened as 19 are killed in a month, the deaths attributed to militias’ war, jihadis and Sahara smuggling rings
“When an elephant walks out of the desert, rain is coming.” Farmers in northern Mali have sworn by their sightings of rare Gourma elephants for generations. Now for the first time, in the wake of the rebel war in Mail, poachers threaten the survival of some of the last desert elephants.
Nineteen elephants have been killed over the past month, and conservationists blame disaffected jihadis and other rebels linked to cross-Sahara smuggling rings.
It is believed there are only 350 to 500 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, say conservationists. Their home in Gourma is located in a part of Mali that is not under complete government control, and where al-Qaida and other extremists have been active.
Nomba Ganamé, the Malian representative of the Wild Foundation, a US-based conservation charity, said the killings in the past five weeks marked the first example of large-scale poaching in Mali.
“In 2012 many young men took up arms, drawn in by high salaries offered by al-Qaida and others,” he said. “Now that those fighters find that they are shunned by their communities and are unable to return to their villages, they go into organised crime.”
At a parliamentary briefing on Tuesday in the capital, Bamako, a member of the Malian government’s nature conservation unit called on MPs to send in military reinforcements.
“In the Gourma zone there is total insecurity,” said Colonel Soumana Timbo. “We have only 10 rangers, with a few vehicles and motorbikes, covering 32,000 sq km. We need joint patrols – military and rangers – to stop this massacre.”
The Wild Foundation has worked in the Gourma region since 2002, studying elephant behaviour and taking steps to protect the animals’ unique 600km annual circular migratory route.
Ganamé said: “These are the northernmost elephants in Africa. We estimate that there are between 350 and 500 of them, the count has not been done yet. No other herd on the continent has developed a migratory pattern like theirs, allowing their survival in an environment with little water and sparse vegetation. In the climatic context of the Gourma the elephants are important for the ecology. They disseminate plant seeds across a vast area.”
Mali was the scene of a French military intervention in January 2013 after al-Qaida and other extremist groups grafted themselves on to a rebellion by Tuareg rebels demanding an independent state in the north. French operations against al-Qaida are still continuing in Mali and a 10,000-strong UN stabilisation force, Minusma, is securing cities such as Timbuktu and Gao.
But there has been little progress in settling Tuareg demands at peace talks that began in Algiers last summer. Al-Qaida has continued its attacks, causing the deaths of nearly 40 UN peacekeepers since Minusma came into being in July 2013.
In a sign of the low level of belief in a peaceful settlement, fighting has intensified in the past few weeks between loyalist militias and Arab and Tuareg rebels. The battles centre on strategic Malian staging points along the Sahara smuggling routes that are used to move arms, drugs, fuel, immigrants and now, it seems, ivory. Conservationists report that the price of ivory in Asia has quadrupled since 2010.
Ganamé said traditional superstitions – such as the belief that an elephant herd’s arrival heralds rain – had long prevented ivory poachers from eliciting the complicity of residents of the sparsely populated Gourma region. He claimed an income supplementation scheme by the Wild Foundation had offered an “honest alternative” for young men who otherwise might have joined the Jihad. The scheme provides part-time work for 500 shepherds and farmers along the elephants’ migration route. They chart the animals’ progress and aim to settle human-animal conflicts when they arise.
One “elephant vigilante”, in the Hombori area of Gourma, said that “god-crazies” had attempted to recruit him on several occasions since 2012. Speaking on condition that his name be withheld, the 40-year-old farmer said: “They offered me a monthly salary as an organiser of 300,000 CFA francs ($516/£340). Ordinary recruits are paid at least 100,000 CFA. These are figures that people like me can never hope to earn from growing millet.”
He said the Wild Foundation provided a motorbike for his daily elephant rounds, fuel and some food aid. “I do not watch the elephants for the money but because they were here long before us humans. Looking after them gives my life meaning. I also know that the god-crazies are liars, but not everyone understands that, especially when they have a family to feed.”