Updated Sept. 2014
Program: The desert elephants of Mali
(a joint project of ICFC and WILD Foundation)
Video | Partners & Personnel | Background | Purpose | Actions and Results | Maps
Slide shows: Fire-breaks | Awareness/Education Campaign

  In Brief  

Location: Mali (West Africa)
Timeframe: Started July 2010; likely duration: 5-10 years.

Note: See our special report on how we are adapting to security concerns and rebel activity in northern Mali.

Goal: To secure the future of elephants in the Gourma region of Mali through measures to reduce human-elephant conflict and provide lasting protection of key dry season and migration habitats.
Threats: Mali's desert elephants are nomadic and traverse an annual migration circuit of around 600 km. Key habitats (food and water resources) have recently been degraded or are under threat, particularly at Lake Banzena, which is critical habitat late in the dry season. This has placed the population's future in jeopardy.
Actions & Results: In collaboration with local people, we have:
  • Supported the voluntary relocation of a recent small settlement at Lake Banzena, and provided water infrastructure at the new site;
  • Supported the process of establishing community conventions (local laws developed through consensus) to govern and protect the new relocation site and its pastoral reserves, wells, and fire-breaks (see slide show), and brigades;
Ongoing work includes:
  • Limiting the impact of transient herders by implementing new rules and fees for use of pasture and water;
  • Conducting an awareness and education campaign about elephants, conservation and the new rules;
  • Combatting a recent rise in poaching in the region, integrated with community engagement and stabilization efforts following the conflict in Mali;
  • Sharing knowledge with surrounding communities to protect elephant habitat elsewhere on the annual migration range.
Cost: 2014:   ICFC portion $395,861   (63%) Total: $629,914
Cumulative cost to ICFC (past and current years): $1,388,609
Size of area
33,534 km2Compare with:
Vancouver Island, 31,285 km2

Photo credit for all images: WILD Foundation

Susan Canney's TED, January 2014 (Follow Susan on Twitter: @CanneySusan):

In more depth...

Program Partners and Personnel

Our partner for this project is the Wild Foundation (WILD). Based in the U.S., WILD has been working in the Gourma area of Mali since 2003 and with Save the Elephants studied the Gourma elephants and their range, migrations and conservation needs.1, 2

The key personnel for this program are WILD President Vance Martin, Project Leader Dr. Susan Canney of Oxford, U.K., and Nomba Ganame, who works full-time on the project in Mali.

ICFC is the lead funder for this project. Other funders are: the Governments of Mali and the USA (which funded boreholes and cisterns at the relocation site for the Banzena community); the US Fish and Wildlife Service; the UK government's Darwin Initiative; the Abraham Foundation; SOS Fund; The Tusk Trust; Woodtiger Foundation, and others.


Elephants once occupied a largely continuous range across West Africa, from the coastal forests to the Sahara, but are now restricted to small, fragmented and geographically isolated populations, over half of which contain fewer than 100 individuals. Numbering an estimated 350-700 individuals in 2004-2005, the desert elephants inhabiting the Gourma region of Mali are a notable remnant population. Possibly because of the tolerance of local people, the isolation of the region, and their small, low-quality tusks, this population largely escaped the rampant poaching that extirpated populations across the Sahel in the 1980s. The largest population in West Africa, they are accorded high priority in the World Conservation Union's regional elephant strategy.

Location of the Gourma region of Mali. (WILD)

To cope with the widely dispersed and variable nature of the Gourma's resources, the population has evolved a unique nomadic strategy that includes a migration circuit of around 600 km. They range broadly throughout the year from the bend of the Niger River in Mali during the dry season, southward to the border region with Burkina Faso during the wet season.

Elephants historically lived in relative harmony with the peoples of the Gourma, but the recent trends of reduced rainfall, along with the spread of agriculture, ranching, settled human communities and water development programs have changed the relationship between elephants, humans and the Sahelian ecosystem. Humans and elephants are now competing more for the same land, crops and water resources.

In the last months of the dry season the population was dependent on two large lakes — Gossi and Banzena. Settlement around Lake Gossi in the 1980s ended its use by elephant herds. More recently, Lake Banzena has come under pressure from transient cattle herders and a new settlement of several hundred people who moved to the area following the installation of a well.

In the last decade, studies have detailed the migration and ecology of the Gourma elephant population1 and elephant-human conflicts at Lake Banzena2. A surprise finding, for example, is that 96% of the cattle using Banzena belonged to "prestige herds" owned by wealthy urban-dwellers. A key conclusion of the studies was that Lake Banzena had to be freed from human use to ensure its continuance as critical habitat for elephants. This has been a key achievement of this project.

In 2012, we completed (thanks to project co-funders) a study of human pressure on elephant habitat in the southern part of the migration route, their wet season range. We also undertook a baseline socio-economic study to evaluate the impact of the Banzena process, including interviews with 100 community members. The results of these studies will inform a plan to protect the elephant's entire migration route.

Elephants at Lake Banzena. (Nomba Ganame)

1 Canney, S., K. Lindsey, E. Hema, V. Martin, I. Douglas-Hamilton. 2007. The Mali elephant initiative: a synthesis of knowledge, research and recommendations concerning the population, its range and the threats to the elephants of the Gourma. Wild Foundation, Save The Elephants and Environment and Development Group.

2 Ganame, N., B. Bah and A. Maiga. A study on the liberation from human and livestock pressure of Lake Banzena in the Gourma of Mali. 2009. (English summary of a larger study in French). Wild Foundation and the Mali Ministere de L''Environnement de de l'Assainissement and the Direction Nationale Des Eaux et Forets.


The project entails crucial steps to protect key habitats for elephants of the Gourma region of Mali. It is part of a longer term effort to secure the future of this northern-most elephant population through lasting protection of important dry season and migration habitats.

This effort involves:

  • freeing Lake Banzena (critical habitat late in the dry season) from human use through (a) voluntary relocation of a small resident community and (b) discontinuing free access by transient cattle herders;
  • establishing community and inter-communal conventions (local laws) to reserve habitat for elephants;
  • participation in planning and meetings with government to encourage regional land use that is compatible with elephant needs;
  • educational outreach and assistance with ecotourism development.
Priorities in the post-conflict situation have been to:
  • Support community reconciliation at the grass roots level;
  • Continue community anti-poaching activities;
  • Protect natural resources in key strategic places, while maintaining the morale of our existing community partners.

Actions and Results

From conflict to concord:  toward better resource management systems
Comments from project leader Susan Canney

The central idea is to prevent and reverse resource degradation by combating the current resource free-for-all by bringing together the diverse elements of the local community to make plans for the management of their natural resources. In doing this the communities put areas aside for elephants and in return they get control over their resources, which (a) creates more resources, for example through fire protection; (b) enables them to prevent outsiders from over-using and abusing their resources; and (c) enables them to charge outsiders for resource use.

At Banzena, for example, the community agreed to leave the lake for the elephants because they were given a new area to move to. To prevent the resources in the new area from being degraded in a resource free-for-all (once the water infrastructure was provided), we helped the community establish the rules and enforcement mechanisms so this would not happen.

Bringing the diverse elements of the local community together — clans, ethnicities, government and technical services — created a sense of shared purpose for mutual benefit as well as novel solutions to apparently intractable problems.

And so we hope to increase the sustainability of this initiative by making life better for the local people as well as for the elephants.

Freeing Banzena from Human Use

One of the first priorities for this project was relocating the recent human settlement at Lake Banzena. The settlement was agreeable to relocating to an area of suitable pasture if water infrastructure could be provided there. The relocation has been completed, along with provision of water, and training local people in managing water and pasture resources at the new site. ICFC supported key steps in this process, including:
  • Meetings with local people to establish the best location for resettlement, at a safe distance from elephant habitat;
  • Construction of the first borehole at the relocation site, and overseeing the construction of additional boreholes and cisterns, and;
  • Overseeing the relocation and initial implementation of the new water management system, including establishing and training committees to manage use of the boreholes.
A new forestry post has been established at Banzena, which will help monitoring of the area, and a grain shop will also be established in the relocation area to add to the community's self sufficiency. The use of Lake Banzena by transient herders has been disallowed and a system introduced whereby local communities will charge fees to use water and pasture resources elsewhere in Gourma. Training was provided for village representatives to help build the skills required to implement this system.

A community meeting and ceremony was held in early 2012 to officially institute the convention to free Lake Banzena from human use. The ceremony was accorded great importance, reinforcing the partnership between communities and the State and legitimizing local authority to enforce the convention.

Already there is evidence of positive impact on resource management in the Banzena hinterland. There are vastly fewer cattle at Banzena, and water management systems are proving effective. One Banzena elder observed "this water-hole has never held water beyond the beginning of September, until this year, and look at it now [full] at the beginning of December." In addition to improving water levels in the lake for the elephants, the relocation has provided a cleaner drinking water supply for the communities, with the families at the new site reporting that stomachaches have ceased since drinking water from the pump.

Unfortunately, during the lawless period of conflict in the region, the boreholes were senselessly sabotaged by jihadis, along with the destruction of a bridge and dam at a critical section of the Gossi river. The breach of this dam has meant water has drained out of the lake and out of the lakes of the whole of the drainage way to the north, vastly reducing the area available for use by herders from the river to the north. Combined with poor rains in 2013, this increased pressure on resources and potential conflict between communities and with elephants. ICFC has provided support for timely repairs of the boreholes, which is urgent to demonstrate to local communities that their damage does not mean the end of the project. In the context of these elevated pressures, we worked with communities to modify resource management systems and establish systems for protection of infrastructure. We also worked with government to establish 12 forester positions at Banzena to assist with enforcement.

Governance and Management of Elephant Reserve and Pastoral Reserve

In recent years elephant conservation has been advanced through community and inter-communal conventions that designate areas as protected elephant habitat. Building on this success, we supported communities in formulating conventions reserving Lake Banzena for elephant use, governing use of boreholes at the relocation site, and establishing a new system of pastoral reserves.

These local agreements have formal state recognition and the force of law. As project leader Dr. Susan Canney explains, they are "the core part of the social process at work". Inter-communal conventions bring adjacent communes together to review the areas in their communes that are used by elephants and to agree on rules of use. They specify the activities allowed and not allowed along the elephants' migration path, along with the community structures required for their monitoring, sanctioning and enforcement. Local conventions do the same thing but at the smaller scale of the area controlled by a single community.

Two key tools have emerged that make our approach innovative and workable:

  • The designation by the local community of their new lands as sylvo-pastoral reserves, creating a legal mechanism by which the community can regulate resource use in its area of influence;
  • The official designation of Brigades of Surveillance to protect the elephant reserve at Lake Banzena from human use; brigade activities are formalized in conjunction with government technical services.
By 2011, inter-communal conventions had been established covering half of the elephant range. By protecting grazing area, the pastoral reserves enable herders to feed their animals using a smaller range, reducing the impact on natural habitats. Feedback from the community on this system has been very positive:
"We never realized that we could protect our pastures to provide enough food for our animals as well as the elephants in an area frequented by so many herders. And yet we have done this in only two years." (Malian herder)

In 2013, a meeting involving more than 140 community members over five days designated twenty-six protected forests in key areas. Also in 2013, we provided thirty additional camels to enable another five community groups to become autonomous in resource protection. Camels are essential to monitoring and patrolling territory, and are the most appropriate, low-maintenance transportation option in the region.

The community also organized to create fire breaks needed to protect the new pastoral reserve; as a result, it was the only part of the north Gourma that did not burn in the period December, 2010-January, 2011. In 2011, the designation of sylvo-pastoral reserves covered a total of 1,425,000 hectares or 3,521,250 acres, partially protected by fire breaks. The success of the firebreaks resonated throughout the elephant range, inspiring other communities and extending the initial plan over a much wider area. In 2012, over 360 individuals from all the campements around Banzena mobilized to continue fire break construction, adding 590 km over a period of 193 days, using camels, donkeys, rakes and tree branches. In 2013 and the first part of 2014, 427 young men participated in construction of 690km of fire-breaks throughout the elephant range, despite remnant insecurity.

Surveillance brigade (above); Fire brigade (below). (WILD)

Fire-breaks in the Gourma

The following slide show was modified from a presentation by Dr. Susan Canney, who remarks:
Every year the Gourma loses much of its resources in pasture and forage to bush fires which sweep through the grassy areas during the dry season when the grass is tinder dry. These are generally caused accidentally from activities such as tea-making, or smoking, but in the south, agriculturalists may start them in order to prevent the transhumant cattle herds from staying in their area.

A pastoral reserve is made to ensure that there is pasture through the dry season but it needs to be protected by fire breaks. These take a good deal of effort to construct but are very effective if done properly. They also require a great deal of community organization to bring differing clans and ethnicities to work together. Supporting this activity is a good way to instantly increase the amount of natural resources available to the population.

Education and Outreach with Surrounding Communities and Government

Another important aspect of the project is education and raising public awareness about the changes and the reasons for them. ICFC has continuously supported community outreach activities such as:
  • Customized messages for radio broadcast that advertised the planned end to the provision of well water at Lake Banzena;
  • Educational workshops and meetings related to elephants, ecology and conservation, preparing the groundwork for elephant management planning;
  • Completion of a Tourist Code of Conduct brochure for local ecotourism;
  • Several publications for an international audience, seeking wider support and recognition for the elephants of the Gourma.
A meeting in 2012 brought the nine communes in the southern Gourma together to collaborate on protection of elephants and their migration route, and to resolve conflicts between the interests of herders, farmers, and elephants. Outreach with various levels of government has been key in gaining support for the project, and has allowed us to engage in wider planning processes to protect elephant habitat. For the last several months, government has been absent from the area due to the pressure of rebel activity. The local communities have decided to continue project activities, laying the groundwork for plans that can be formalized when peace returns to the region.

Liberation of the north in January 2013 through the French intervention has meant that the Gourma is now free of Islamist control, but the government has not yet returned. In the post-conflict context, we have aimed to support community reconciliation at the grass roots.

At the same time we were aware of the danger of repeating the mistakes of past aid and reconstruction. We hope to use the lessons from the past and prevent well-intentioned aid and reconstruction from creating worse conditions over the long term for the environment and for the elephants.

For these two reasons, the idea of the national workshops was born: the first for representatives of all levels of government, to enable frank and open discussion and an exchange of information between the grass-roots and national perspectives to determine the way forward; and second, to take these recommendations to the donor community. We began these workshops in 2014, along with the launch of a reconciliation report at a press conference that received wide coverage in the newspapers and on Malian TV. A series of meetings with government representatives in 2014 fortified reconciliation efforts and commitment to the elephant project. Each of the meetings were held over several days, and together involved over 1000 community representatives, along with key ministers in environment and national defense, governors and regional directors.

Slide show: Awareness/Education Campaign               play   stop   <previous   next>  

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Anti-poaching Initiatives

Elephant/ivory poaching (and other natural resources crimes) are directly funding rebel and terrorist groups. The MEP approach to natural resource security - -in this case, the protection by local communities of a unique herd of Africa elephants -- is now a "war-tested" model of community engagement and stabilization that has protected the elephants (and secured other key natural resources) by providing employment for young men and empowerment for community elders. This project survived strongly despite complete collapse of national government presence, control of the area by armed groups (domestic and foreign), total lawlessness, and a proliferation of firearms.

In 2012, major efforts were put into developing an anti-poaching task force. The Surveillance Brigades have played an important role in guarding elephant habitat from illegal activities, and more so since the conflict has driven government out of the region. Fortunately, we were able to respond to the first incidence of poaching in a timely manner, setting an important precedent.

A 3-day meeting to address poaching held in April 2012, which drew 78 participants from 15 neighbouring communities, mobilizing community leaders and volunteers to intensify awareness and enforcement measures. The participants brought back key messages to their communities: that elephant poaching is a crime against the people of the Gourma; that the tusks of Gourma elephants are of very low commercial value, so their slaughter is wasted in any case; and, that the elephants have a much greater value alive, ecologically and for tourism.

Two subsequent training courses have been held to help Brigades gather information about poaching activities, and to train young recruits in anti-poaching procedures: the first for forty-two young recruits over a period of five days, and the second for 263 recruits over twenty-four days. They have been successful in identifying certain perpetrators, as well as recovering stolen goods unrelated to the elephants.

Assessment and Future Priorities

Things are going well. Malians take pride in their elephants and are receptive to measures to accommodate their needs. The relocated community and other residents of the area are enthusiastic partners in the process.

Some overarching results:

  • the Banzena process has expanded over a larger area, and is thereby much strengthened as adjacent communities join in;
  • there is 100% support from the top levels of government in the Ministries of the Environment and Agriculture;
  • we are establishing the firm foundations of an approach that can be adapted and replicated throughout the elephant range, and elsewhere.
In the immediate future, we will continue anti-poaching efforts and engagement with the local communities to strengthen resource management systems. When government presence returns to the area, we hope to formalize the local laws established during the conflict, and continue work towards harmonizing the Mali government's Regional Structure Plan with elephant needs.

ICFC's support for this project has leveraged assistance from other sources. The project has garnered support and interest from key partners such as the Mali Ministry of Environment, top Malian experts, universities, the World Tourism Organization and the World Bank.

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