(CNN) — The bodies of young elephants covered in the brown dirt of dried-up wells tell a heartrending story.
Reaching desperately for drops of water, they had lowered their trunks, toppled in, remained trapped and died in Mali’s scorching heat.
The “last desert elephants in West Africa” have “adapted to survive in the harsh conditions” they face, Save the Elephants said Monday. But now, the group says, conditions have gone from bad to worse, and they are living “on the margin of what is ecologically viable.”
Save the Elephants distributed new pictures Monday that depict the devastating drought and the struggle for survival in Mali, one of the poorest nations in the world.
“Six elephants have already been found dead,” the group wrote in a news release accompanying the photos.
“Four others, including three calves, were recently extracted from a shallow well into which they had fallen when searching for water. Only the largest survived.”
The youngest are in the most danger, since their smaller trunks can’t reach deep into the few remaining wells, the group said.
The worst drought in 26 years is threatening the existence of the “last desert elephants in West Africa,” the northernmost herds in the continent, Save the Elephants said.
The animals, now numbering only about 350 to 450, have been called “the last elephants of Timbuktu,” said Jake Wall, a scientist with Save the Elephants. But they’re south of Timbuktu, Wall told CNN in a phone interview from Bamako, Mali. “We tend to refer to them as ‘the last Sahelian elephants.’
Each year, the elephants trek farther on the fringes of the Sahara to find water. They have the longest migration route of any in the continent, traveling “in a counterclockwise circle” of about 700 kilometers (435 miles), Save the Elephants said.
The images are signs of the crisis gripping the northwest African nation.
The U.N. Development Programme ranks Mali near the bottom of its Human Development Index. It cites a 56 percent poverty rate in the country, with nearly a third of the population unlikely to live past age 40, and an illiteracy rate of 77 percent.
The World Food Programme says the majority of infant deaths in Mali are due to malnutrition.
The drought, combined with soaring temperatures, has also led to deaths of cattle, Save the Elephants said. “The stench of rotting corpses fills the air, and what little water remains is putrid and undrinkable by all standards.”
In areas where the elephants live and search for water, “the normal peaceful coexistence between the elephants and herdsmen is starting to break down and giving way to conflict over access to water,” Wall said.
There is some hope for the weeks and months ahead. “We’re hoping the rains start in June, and that will allow the elephants to start drinking out of shallow ponds until the really heavy rains begin” in July or August, Wall said.
But “urgent action” is needed in the interim “to secure water for the elephants,” Wall’s group said in its news release.
Save the Elephants, which focuses on helping elephant populations worldwide, said it has partnered with a foundation and the Mali government in its fundraising appeal.
Drought threatens desert elephants
Pete Wilton | 18 May 09
University of Oxford
A rare herd of desert elephants is under threat from the worst drought in 26 years.
Researchers from charity Save the Elephants report that the 350-450 elephants of the Gourma region in Mali are being forced to trek ever-longer distances in search of water.
Many elephants have already died and juveniles are thought to be most at risk as their trunks cannot reach down to the remaining water in the deepest wells, according to STE scientist Jake Wall.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a Research Associate at Oxford’s Department of Zoology and founder of the charity Save the Elephants, has been monitoring these herds for the last three decades.
Iain said: ‘In the Gourma region of Mali are the last elephants living in the Sahel and they are northernmost in Africa. Their range has shrunk drastically since the 1970s due to climate change and overstocking of livestock which has degraded the habitat.’
‘These elephants have the longest migration route of any in Africa and move in a counterclockwise circle of about 700km. At the height of the dry season there are only a handful of shallow lakes left to them until recharged by rains in July and August.’
This year the water levels are extremely low in the Gourma region due to uneven rainfall in 2008. The most important of these lakes, Banzena, is the lowest it has been since 1983 when it dried up completely.
STE is appealing for funds to help them get water to the elephants to help them survive until the first predicted rains arrive in early June.