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Updated Oct. 2015
Program: The desert elephants of Mali
(a joint project of ICFC and WILD Foundation)
Video | Partners & Personnel | Background | Actions and Results | Maps
Slide shows: Fire-breaks | Awareness/Education Campaign

  In Brief  

Location: Mali (West Africa)
Timeframe: Started 2010; likely duration: 7-10 years.
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 & Opportunity: Mali's desert elephants are nomadic and traverse an annual migration circuit of around 600 km. Key habitats (food and water resources) have been degraded or are under threat, placing the population's future in jeopardy. Dr. Susan Canney, project leader, and Nomba Ganame, the project's field coordinator, have pioneered an approach to community-based natural resource management that is succeeding in protecting natural resources for elephants and people.
What we're doing: In collaboration with rural communities, we have:
  • Supported the voluntary relocation of a recent small settlement at Lake Banzena (critical dry season habitat);
  • Facilitated the formation of community conventions (local laws developed through consensus) to protect habitat and govern pastoral reserves, water resources, and fire-breaks (see slide show);
  • established brigades in which about 600 local young men carry out in anti-poaching patrols and work with government foresters to protect habitat.
Cost: 2015:   ICFC portion US$310,861  
Cumulative cost to ICFC (past years): C$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

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.

Background: a most unusual elephant population

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 trend 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 2000s, studies detailed the migration and ecology of the Gourma elephant population1 and elephant-human conflicts at Lake Banzena2. A surprise finding, for example, was 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.

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.

Actions and Results

The project entails crucial actions to protect key habitats for elephants of the Gourma region of Mali, including: Additional priorities in the post-conflict period have been to:
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 Lake Banzena from human use

One of the first priorities for this project was relocating the recent human settlement at Lake Banzena. The settlers were 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 for managing water and pasture resources at the new site.

In addition to improving water levels in the lake for the elephants, the relocation has provided a cleaner drinking water supply, with the families at the new site reporting that stomachaches ceased since drinking water from the pump.

A new forestry post was established at Banzena for monitoring the area. The use of Lake Banzena by transient herders has been disallowed; elsewhere in the Gourma region, a system is to be introduced whereby local communities will charge fees to use water and pasture resources.

Unfortunately, during the lawless period of conflict in the region, the boreholes were senselessly sabotaged by jihadis and a bridge and dam were destroyed at a critical section of the Gossi river. The breach of this dam drained water from the lake and also from lakes in the drainage 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, but since then, theft of solar panels powering the borehole pump ended the supply of clean water, with the result of people moving back to Lake Banzena. We are addressing this situation.

Governance and Management of Elephant Reserve and Pastoral Reserve

The project has advanced elephant conservation through community and inter-communal conventions that designate areas as protected elephant habitat, establish rules for what activities are allowed and not allowed along the elephants' migration path, and put in place community structures for monitoring and enforcement. 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".

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

In protecting grazing areas, 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)

Now, in 2015, we have about 600 brigade members. In addition, over 500 yong men have volunteered to help in providing information about the elephants, their movements, and the armed groups. Virtually all the young men who didn't take up arms are either a member of a brigade or one of these volunteers.

© WILD Foundation. Surveillance brigade (above); Fire brigade (below). Camels are used for monitoring and patrolling territory, and are the most appropriate, low-maintenance transportation option in the region.

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 supported community outreach activities including: The project has facilitated meetings in which communities assemble to collaborate on protection of elephants and their migration route, and to resolve conflicts between herders, farmers, and elephants. Outreach with various levels of government has gained support for the project and has allowed us to engage in wider planning processes to protect elephant habitat.

Since the liberation of the north in January 2013 by the French, we have aimed to support community reconciliation at the grass roots. In the past, well-intentioned aid and reconstruction has created worse conditions over the long term for the environment and for the elephants. For this reason, the idea of a national workshop was born. Held in 2014, the workshop was attended by representatives of all levels of government and enabled a frank and open exchange of information. The resulting recommendations were taken to the donor community.

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

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Anti-poaching Initiatives

Rebel and terrorist groups and now bandits derive income from elephant/ivory poaching. Our anti- poaching approach is now a "war-tested" model of community engagement and stabilization that has protected the elephants and secured other key natural resources while providing employment for young men and empowerment for community elders. These efforts continued despite the interruption in the national government presence in the region, the control of the area by militias, lawlessness, and a proliferation of firearms.


This project is succeeding. Malians take pride in their elephants and have proved receptive to measures to accommodate their needs. Communities are enthusiastic partners in the process and persevered in their engagement with the project through a period of extreme adversity. We are establishing the foundations of an approach that can be adapted and replicated throughout the elephant range and beyond.

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