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.
What saved the elephants from even greater harm, however, were the young men of the Mali Elephant Project site in northeast Mali. Although militants were aggressively trying to recruit soldiers, by offering men between thirty and fifty dollars a day, hundreds of young men turned down the inciting offer and instead enlisted with the newly established Mali elephant surveillance brigade. They investigated each elephant poaching incident, helped bring the guilty to justice, and spread the word that poaching was unacceptable, even with the country at war.
"We couldn't afford to give these young men anything other than food," said Dr. Canney. "But the vast majority of them still chose to work for us. For a lot of the men, they saw protecting the elephants as much more noble work and in their culture this gave them social status. I've learned that in Mali people value status over money every time. We've lost that in the West, we think status comes from money, and that's often the case in our culture. But for them there's lots of other things that bring status, and being an elephant protector is one of them."
While the fighting in Mali has abated since French troops were sent in, the situation is far from resolved.
Dr. Canney reports that the elephants are even more skittish than usual because of all the helicopters and most likely frequent encounters with fragment rebel groups hiding in the forests.
For now though, the elephants continue to be the bewildering survivors of heat, drought, poaching and now, war.
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Joanna M. Foster writes about the environment and energy for the New York Times, Popular Science and OnEarth Magazine among others. She has traveled extensively in Africa and India and is passionate about conservation and development issues, especially as they are impacted by climate change. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, but dreams of Kenya.
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