NOTE: 01 Feb 2016
I’ve re-posted this interview because the threat to Mali’s elephants is becoming even more worrying.
Poachers have exploited the on-going civil conflict in Mali to poach more elephants than ever before and unless action is taken very soon there is a real danger of Africa’s northernmost herd of elephants being wiped out.
The Mali Elephant Project has done an amazing job of protecting these elephants and could be making a significant contribution to their protection right now if they weren’t being stymied by inept local officials who are holding up the deployment of rangers and other resources.
A recent update on the situation posted by Dr Susan Canney can be found at the end of the interview
The plight of Africa’s elephants has been a hotly debated subject in recent years with articles devoted to just about every aspect of the issue, from poaching to destruction of habitat to culling, to hunting to the sale of entire family groups to countries around the world.
Naturally enough, I suppose, the bulk of the attention has been paid to the fate of elephants in countries where they are of major significance in generating tourism revenue and this fact has been used to raise awareness around the globe.
The fact that the West African country of Mali even has an elephant population is a surprise to many people, even regular visitors to Africa. Yet, the arid landscapes that mark the transition from the true desert of the Sahara and the barely more fertile savannah of the Sahel are home to the continent’s most northerly herds of elephants.
I’d come across references to these elephants on a couple of occasions while searching for information on other subjects, but had never taken the time to investigate further.
When the subject popped up again in 2014 I thought that it was about time that I stopped being so lazy and I quickly discovered that almost all the information I could find on these elephants was made available by the Mali Elephant Project.
The more I read, the more enthused I was to go back to Mali (I hadn’t been since 1980/81) and see these remarkable animals for myself. Over a period of weeks I put together an itinerary for myself that would combine time spent tracking the elephants with visits to the places that had stuck in my memory for the past 30 odd years; Mopti, Djenne, and the Dogon country. I was also keen to try and catch some live music in Bamako as some of my favourite African musicians hail from Mali.
The Mali Elephant Project is an initiative of the Wild Foundation, founded over 40 years ago by Dr Ian Player.
I also quickly learned that person holding the reins on the Mali Elephant Project was Dr Susan Canney and that she is based in England, at Oxford University Department of Zoology.
The logical thing for me to do was to try and meet Dr Canney and find out more about the project and her work.
I got in contact and was delighted that she would be happy to meet me, and we set up a meeting for early in 2015. Not wanting to appear a complete dullard I started to read as much as I could about the region and the project itself. In this, Dr Canney’s blog was a great help; giving a vivid account of the highs and lows of conservation in remote areas.
2012 & 2013 had not been good years for the Mali Elephant Project. Northern Mali had been taken over by Islamic militant groups and had fallen out of the control of the country’s government in Bamako. It was only with the significant assistance of French troops that the government was able to regain control of the region and drive out the militants. The hostilities had taken place right on much of the elephants’ annual migratory route and there was concern that this would lead to an increase in poaching.
In 2014 had seen some return to normality with the Malian army asserting its authority in key towns like Gao and Timbuktu. Even so, the region was still fraught with tension and raids by Islamists on villages were not uncommon.
In February 2015 there was an incident in which 19 of the elephants were killed by poachers causing concern that this might mark the start of a new wave of attacks. The situation has not improved since our meeting and as recently as May and June 2015 there have been further incidents with about 24 elephants being killed. The sudden surge is believed to be related to the stalled peace talks between the Bamako government and the northern rebels.
MD (That’s me) – I suppose the first thing I should ask is what was it that sparked your interest in Mali’s elephants?
SC (Dr Susan Canney) – I’d just finished a doctorate in the Mkomazi Game Reserve (now a National Park), Tanzania, using satellite imagery to look at human impact in the reserve, because at the time there was an ongoing court case maintaining that the Maasai had been illegally evicted from the reserve by the army. They were evicted on the grounds that they were harming the environment and I thought that it would be interesting to see what kind of environmental change there had been as a result of their occupation of the reserve. This was possible because of a natural experiment where different parts of the reserve had different histories of human occupation. There was a part of the reserve where they’d always been, a part where they’d never been and a part where they had initially never been but then their numbers had built up gradually until they were evicted. I used satellite imagery from different periods to look at changes in the reserve and relate it to patterns of human occupation.
In 2002 the president of the Wild Foundation, Vance Martin was visiting his friend, the US Ambassador to Mali, and heard about the elephants. He wanted to know more and so contacted Iain Douglas Hamilton who had GPS-collared 3 elephants in 2000-2001, but although the data had been downloaded, it had not been analysed. Vance raised $300,000 from the US State Department for Save the Elephants to undertake scientific studies to estimate the elephant population and analyse the collar data in conjunction with satellite imagery to understand the elephant migration. Through contacts at Oxford, I was asked if I would be interested in the latter to understand the migration, how the elephants had survived and whether they were they in danger; as well as determine what needed to be done and the priorities for action.? That was over a period of three years, from 2003 to 2006.
MD And it became a Wild Foundation project?
SC Yes. At the end of those three years I felt I couldn’t walk away; particularly as I had a sense of what had to be done and where. Vance was also keen to take the next step and a conservation project was born. Save the Elephants collared about another 7-9 elephants in 2008/9 and these data supported the previous conclusions.
MD My next question was going to be: “Were you the originator of the Mali Elephant Project?” but you’ve kind of answered that already. So you were there at the beginning but you were not the actual initiator?
SC Iain (Douglas Hamilton) started the science by collaring the three elephants in 2000 and Vance started the project by raising $300,000 for the scientific studies. Then I took the project forward under the umbrella of The WILD Foundation
MD Are you still tracking? Are there still collared elephants?
SC No. The last of Save the Elephants’ 2008-9 collars stopped recording in 2010. Collaring is very demanding and resource intensive, particularly in these environments and in 2006 we already had enough information to launch conservation activities on the ground.
MD Roughly what does it cost to keep the project going? You had the initial $300,000.
SC Yes. So that was effectively $100,000 a year for the scientific studies, then between 2007 and 2010 we were operating on a grant of $50,000 a year plus little bits from here and there, so we were operating on about $50,000 – $70,000 a year.
MD Presumably you were still employed by the university here were you?
SC I was actually doing freelance work. Some freelance teaching, and conservation work in many different countries. One thing that really helped me survive was counting fish at nuclear power stations for Pisces Conservation who were monitoring the environmental impact of Hinkley and Sizewell.
Then in 2010 the International Conservation Fund of Canada became joint partners and their support freed up my time to be able to raise more money. That was brilliant. We were able to build a team and the project really took off, on the basis of the existing ground-work. Last year we raised and spent $900,000 – $1,000,000.
MD What chews up that money? What’s the bulk of the expenditure on?
SC It gets bumped up when we have to infrastructure costs like digging out waterholes or sinking a borehole. For example last year we had to repair water infrastructure.
The Malian government contributed $75,000 and we raised $75,000 from elsewhere which was included in the $900,000. Most of the rest of the money is spent on community meetings, because the project is heavily based on empowering the community and this requires bringing them together to develop collective approaches.
MD One of the things that really caught my eye about the way this project is run is that although there is conservation going on all around the world what struck me is that in a lot of Africa, particularly East and Southern Africa, conservation is almost tied hand in hand with tourism. A lot of conservation actually doesn’t pay enough attention to the needs of the community, doesn’t listen to their voices enough and so conservation quite often becomes a human versus animals conflict. There are places in East Africa where local communities feel that they are valued less than the wild animals that are now given range over and that they are no longer allowed to farm.
What struck me about the Mali Elephant Project is that it is rooted in the community and, from I’ve read and seen from your blogs and reports, one gets the impression that the community takes a great pride in the fact that this herd of elephants is still roaming and they would like to see them there and they are doing that without really having any expectation that they are suddenly going to get a windfall from tourism.
It strikes me as a much – it’s the wrong word to use but I can’t think of a better one – it’s a much purer form of conservation because actually it is the community that are saying “We want to keep this”; even though there must be conflict between the elephants, which are large destructive animals, and their needs as farmers, herders etc. It was that that particularly appealed to me about the whole thing.
SC I think this is because I felt we were dealing with a huge area – the size of Switzerland – and that if these elephants were to survive, their conservation had to result automatically from the day to day decisions of the local people. The whole socio-ecological system had to shift to support elephant conservation, rather than continually pouring resources to fight the symptoms of a system that is hostile to elephant survival. This requires a systemic approach that views the problem of elephant conservation within its wider context. It is in contrast to a view that focuses more narrowly on undesirable phenomena e.g. crop-trampling, or lack of water.
The problem for the elephants is human occupation of the migration route and environmental degradation from increasing human pressures, so one needs to look at what’s causing that, and in this case it’s anarchic resource use. The area is home to many ethnicities and social groupings and they each have their own systems of resource management but are reluctant to respect each other’s. This results in a free-for-all.
At the same time you need to identify existing assets that support the direction in which you want to go. In this situation, for example, the local people are key, and we discovered that their attitude was supportive: they understood that elephants were an indicator of a healthy environment and they knew that their well-being depended on this. They knew that what was required to conserve elephants was also good for them. We could reinforce that.
I believe this is the same everywhere; whatever is required to conserve nature is good for everyone, except those who are making profits from its destruction because the costs of that destruction are borne by others, either directly (for example mining effluent contaminating rivers) or indirectly by society at large (for example where shrimp farms destroy the mangroves that protect inland communities from flood damage). Policy makers frequently talk about the environment as if it is an optional extra, something nice to have if we can afford it. Whereas really it should be the other way around: the economy is a part of society which is a part of the planetary environment that hosts our species.
Conservation is fundamental to everything we do. In the Gourma this is more evident because the people live close to nature. This is a big asset because you don’t have to lecture them about how important the environment is; they know that. By contrast we in our urban societies live divorced from nature so we don’t see the direct connection between our everyday lives and a healthy eco-system.
MD A current trend is to establish areas for the conservation of wildlife; conservancies, reserves or whatever we choose to call them. As often as not these areas are established on land that has been leased from local communities, by persuading them that they will make as much, if not more money, by giving their land over to conservation as they will from raising cattle or other agricultural enterprises.
Those establishing the conservancies are doing so to create an environment that is conducive to wildlife tourism – that is how they will make their money – and for it to be attractive to wildlife tourists the last thing they want is local tribes people running their herds of livestock on the same land. If the tribes lease their land for wildlife conservation they cannot use it for their own animals. It is either or.
But in Mali you seem to have achieved that – or perhaps it is more accurate to say it has been achieved.
SC It’s a question of balance. However in Mali virtually all the other wildlife has been hunted out. The elephants are all that is left, but our ultimate goal is to eventually bring back other wildlife. In the situation you mentioned, and it comes down to the same thing in Mali, it depends on who is benefiting and who is bearing the costs of anything that happens there. Lake Banzena, for example, is the only late dry season water for the elephants without which they can’t survive as, unlike humans and their livestock, they can’t use borehole water and there is no other surface water within reach. Degradation at Lake Banzena is due to the influx of huge “prestige” herds belonging to wealthy outsiders. They benefit, but the local people and the elephants suffer from the over-exploitation and degradation caused.
MD Could the same approach work elsewhere? In your opinion.
SC As a first thought to applying this approach to the situation you mentioned earlier, in East Africa (given that I don’t know the details which can make all the difference) …… you would have to have that dialogue between the private interests and the Maasai and they would have got to negotiate the price. You might result in a land use planning agreement where Maasai can have x number of cattle and can graze certain agreed areas. In Mkomazi I noticed that when there was a breakdown in the local reserve administration and the Maasai were using the reserve freely the livestock drank the waterholes dry and there were no wild animals. There were no rules of resource use. It was a complete free for all.
There needs to be a balance – areas for this and areas for that – basically land use planning for a crowded world, and then negotiate what price is right. If it seems expensive it’s usually because we tend to externalise environmental costs.
There are equity issues as well. The people in the Gourma are the poorest of the poor but although they have no power in the conventional sense, they have a different kind of power just by being there, like the Maasai do.
30 years ago it was all about “what do the animals need?”. Now it’s all about “How do you manage people?” and defend some space for animals.
MD It has to be. Populations are growing and inevitably there’s conflict and as soon as you create a situation where people perceive that they are valued less than the animals it’s a problem.
SC When I began working in conservation in the 80’s, I remember feeling sad that there was antagonism between the development community and the conservation community I thought “No, they’re on the same side somehow and I’ve got to work out how they’re on the same side.” They’re on the same side because there’s a breakdown in governance. When you have poor people who see their needs being pushed aside for much richer people to come and enjoy what they see as their land what do you think they feel? They’re not allowed to use this area and yet there are very rich people – in their eyes – coming from outside to just drive around it. Of course that causes enormous resentment.
In the Gourma we are trying to prevent overexploitation, for example by controlling the influx of livestock by making the huge “prestige” herds pay for access to the resources of the Gourma.
MD So basically they are being charged to graze their herds?
SC Yes, and for water.
MD So who charges them?
SC Local people ….. backed up by government foresters. We’d just begun to get this working when the conflict came. We are able to help the community do this because Mali has de-centralisation legislation which stipulates that local communities can manage their own natural resources. The communities determine the rules which are laid out in legal “conventions”, local and at commune level, which identify the areas, resources and the rules. We have found they elect a management committee of elders and experts that sets the rules, and then the young men make up the “brigades de surveillance” who patrol to check that the rules are being adhered to. They are backed up by foresters who provide enforcement.
Once that is in place we have found that one of the first things that happens is that the management committee designates an area of reserve pasture, and then we help them protect it with fire breaks through training.
MD Do the elephants not go to the river?
SC Not to the north it’s too far for them at that time of year. In the 1970’s their migration included the lakes in the inner delta but now the human population density is too great. Plus those lakes have been drying and hold no water at the end of the dry season. It’s uncertain the degree to which that is due to drought or the degree to which it is due to dams upstream. Interestingly, every year they (the elephants) send a scout over to that area, maybe to check the situation and see whether there’s any water in the lakes.
MD Lake Banzena is clearly a vital water supply; can it cope?
SC In the 90’s and 00’s increasing numbers of people settled around the lake and there were huge increases in the size of the herds and the assumption was that those two things were linked. When we did the study in 2009 we found that 96% of those cattle didn’t belong to the local people. They belonged to the wealthy people– the businessmen, politicians, doctors, lawyers etc – living in the river towns (and even further afield) who put their excess money into cattle, amassing huge herds as a sign of prestige , and then hiring impoverished herders to find water and forage for them.
There were also high levels of exploitation of natural resources –tree cutting, charcoal burning, fishing; again from commercial interests in the river towns It’s quite typical for conservation problems to result from overexploitation by commercial interests, because a growth economy doesn’t have limits, it’s always pushing for more and more.. By contrast local subsistence people know about living within physical limits.
MD Reading your blogs and looking at the various video clips that are available showing interviews with some of the local Malians involved in the Elephant project, it is clear that they take great pride in their participation and they feel it gives them status in their community.
SC Status is a hugely important thing and it works at the local level. The young men who work with us hardly get paid anything; really not much more than their food costs.
Jihadists were offering to pay them $30-$50 per day and yet none of the people we had recruited left to join them.
MD I read that. The thing that fascinated me about it was my perception of jihadists was completely different. My thinking was “it’s a jihad, it’s a holy war; you do this because you believe in Islam.” – or some twisted version of it. But to actually pay people to be jihadists seems to be completely defeat the idea of it being faith based.
SC But that’s how it spreads so quickly. There was a BBC programme on Boko Haram that went into Niger. They were asking the young men “So you’re Jihadis?” “Oh no they’re paying us. We need something to do, we haven’t got any jobs.”
Our brigade members said they didn’t join the jihadists because the project work was more …… they used the word ‘noble’. In other words it gives them more status within the community.
MD It must be very rewarding for you to hear that. How did you manage it?
SC At the beginning before we did anything on the ground we needed to know about people’s perceptions: their lives and their attitudes to the elephants. Elephants were only going to survive if the local people supported their conservation. The majority of the people were supportive (around 78% of the 350+ people we surveyed, with 4% being indifferent) with a common attitude being, “if the elephants disappear, it means the environment is no longer good for us”. Our approach was to use the results of meetings and workshops to develop an outreach programme to build a shared vision throughout Mali so that elephant conservation was taken as a given by all, Part of this was to encourage pride at the national level “Mali is a Sahelian country with elephants – that makes it pretty special.” We also developed a programme for the schools of the Gourma about how to live peaceably with elephants.
We found that at the local level people started saying “If the elephants disappear our area will no longer be special.” This shared vision provided a supportive base for subsequent action on the ground.
MD From what I’ve been able to read you do seem to have fairly unequivocal support from the Malian government for what you’re doing. What’s in it for them?
SC Absolutely, yes. Historically conservation is Mali’s last priority, even in the Department of the Environment, and the morale in the service was rock bottom, wi