Cablegate: Efforts Continue to Save Mali's Elephants

DE RUEHBP #0396/01 1151621
R 241621Z APR 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. SUMMARY: An estimated 550 to 700 elephants in Mali's
Gourma region are threatened by drying climate, landscape
degradation, and increasing human contact. The Malian herd
is the northernmost group of elephants in west Africa and the
only surviving group in the Sahel. International
conservation groups Save the Elephants and WILD Foundation
have partnered with the Malian government and local
associations to collect information to help protect the herd
by using collars to track migration patterns. While Mali has
the political will to protect the herd, conservation
resources are lacking. Successful conservation efforts hinge
on educating successive generations of Malians on ways to
co-exist with the Gourma elephants despite growing ecological
challenges that threaten people and animals. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- -
Current state of elephants in Mali and threats
--------------------------------------------- -

2. The Gourma elephant population in Mali is currently
estimated at 550-700 animals, and is distinctive in Africa
for three reasons: it is the northernmost herd on the
continent; it occupies an exceptionally harsh, arid
environment; and it owes its existence to historic
co-existence with the people of the region. These elephants
represent 12 percent of all West African elephants, and their
numbers appear to have remained more or less stable since the
1970s. Their survival has hinged on the evolution of a
nomadic strategy that includes a migration circuit of 600km -
the longest annual migration of elephants ever recorded - to
cope with the widely dispersed and variable nature of the
Gourma's resources. The elephants lived in relative harmony
with the people in the Gourma until the 1990s, but the recent
trends of reduced rainfall, along with the spread of
agriculture, ranched livestock, 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 heavily for the same
resources (land, crops and water), risking increased conflict.

3. Compared to other populations throughout Africa, the
Gourma elephants are an old population meaning that more than
half of the herd is composed of adult animals. The herd has
a fairly high fertility rate but also very high rates of
mortality in newborns and young due to the harsh environment
and long migration route. The population is vulnerable to
anything that obliges the elephants to search further for
food or water, and in particular to prolonged stresses such
as a drying climate and increased pressure from humans.

4. Studies in other parts of Africa indicate that an
incremental expansion on human impact reaches a threshold, at
which point elephants move away. According to research by
Save the Elephants and the WILD Foundation, however, the
elephants may not have anywhere else to move in this area of
Mali that could provide all their requirements. Dr. Susan
Canney, one of the chief researchers, also notes that "as the
options for the elephants are reduced, there is the risk that
sudden increases in conflict will occur. Once this happens
the scope for reducing it are limited, and solutions are much
more difficult to implement."

--------------------------------------------- ----------
Save the Elephants - WILD Foundation Collaring Projects
--------------------------------------------- ----------

5. Save the Elephants and the WILD Foundation have partnered
with other conservationists to track the elephants to see
where and when they migrate. In 2000, researchers attached
GPS collars to nine elephants; they later recovered three
working units. The high-tech data confirmed that the
elephants follow a vast, counterclockwise route dotted with
temporary and permanent watering holes. They linger at a
lake on the northern edge of their range until the rains
begin in June, then head south, eventually crossing briefly
into northern Burkina Faso.

6. The goal of the ongoing tracking projects is to identify
"choke points" - corridors the elephants must traverse to
complete their migration. By documenting where the elephants
roam, not just from water hole to water hole but in search of
food and cover, people can avoid blocking their routes with
permanent settlements (Note: the Gourma region has a series
of east-west running impassable bluffs that channels the
elephants through grasslands also suitable for grazing
cattle. End Note). Although they spend a very small amount
of time in these corridor areas, blocking any one of them
could have disastrous consequences. The team is
collaborating with Google Earth which will enable the
researchers to pinpoint the exact location of the collared
elephants and make informed recommendations to the local

BAMAKO 00000396 002 OF 002

7. The most recent collaring expedition in March 2008
illustrates the risk to both the elephants and the research
team. While the expedition was considered a success with 9
of 10 planned collars successfully placed, one elephant was
much older and weaker than the team had suspected and did not
survive the stress of the anesthesia. Unrelated to the
collaring operation, another three baby elephants died while
trapped in a mud-hole. The team responded quickly to the
plea for help from local authorities but were only able to
save an adult female accompanying the babies. During this
rescue attempt, the adult became enraged and charged a crowd.
Bystanders were not injured thanks to a Malian official from
the National Direction of the Conservation of Nature (DNCN)
who diverted the elephant and fractured his thumb when he
fell trying to get out of her way. Finally, the Save the
Elephant/WILD Foundation team safely avoided disaster when
the engine on their spotting plane failed; the pilot was able
to glide safely onto a donkey path.

WB Biodiversity Project

8. The WILD Foundation, Save the Elephants and other
organizations provided recommendations to the World Bank for
the 6-year (2005-2011) USD 10 million project to protect
Mali's natural resources. The Gourma Biodiversity
Conservation Project for Mali aims to stop and, in some
cases, reverse biodiversity degradation trends in key
conservation areas and other specific sites in the Gourma.
This project relies on the local knowledge, leadership and
commitment of the Gourma population. On communal land, local
initiatives favoring biodiversity by community members,
community groups or local councils are being implemented.
Support is being provided through information, training,
financing and advice for local-level biodiversity
initiatives. Since 2006, the chiefs of 18 communes have
undergone awareness training and over half of the
conservation areas have been created.

--------------------------------------------- --
Efforts Africa-wide: African Elephant Coalition
--------------------------------------------- --

9. In February, seventeen African countries signed a
document for the establishment of a coalition to save the
elephant. It was also agreed that a global elephant action
plan that will fight illegal killing and trade in ivory be
implemented. Mali hosted the meeting and was elected chair
of the coalition. The Malian Minister for Environment, Mr.
Agatham Alhassan, supported the accord noting that "with
limited human and financial resources, we face not only
climate change challenges, but also cruel methods poachers
use to slaughter elephants and devastate their habitats,
which have been considered safe havens in the past."


10. The key to the successful conservation of these
elephants now lies in continuing to educate and inspire the
people of Mali. The current generation of Malians, some of
whom still remember the lions, ostriches, giraffes and other
wildlife that has long since left the Gourma, are willing to
live together with the elephants. Some officials in Gourma
have asked for assistance to reduce or better control the
small flow of Western tourists who, with inexperienced
guides, may get too close and/or disturb the elephants (with
some even chasing the reclusive elephants in 4x4s). It is
encouraging that community support for conservation efforts
currently remains high.

© Scoop Media

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