Smugglers, jihadists prey on Mali’s rare desert elephants


France 24

Date Published

About a fifth of Mali’s rare desert elephants have been killed this year as ivory poachers exploit a security vacuum in the country’s north, the United Nations has said, warning of a growing threat from Islamist militants roaming the region.

At least 57 elephants died between January and June among the West African country’s only herd of around 300 animals, the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA said in a statement.

“(The poached elephants) represent about 20 percent of the remaining (Malian) population and were killed in areas where insecurity is present,” MINUSMA said, adding that forest rangers were frequently targeted by jihadists bands.

The WILD Foundation, which helps protect Mali’s northern Gourma herd, estimates that around 90 of the mammals have been killed since late 2014.

Tens of thousands of elephants once roamed the savannahs stretching between West Africa’s shores and the Nile basin but poaching and habitat loss have dramatically cut their numbers.

Roughly 7,000 animals are thought to remain in West and Central Africa, of which some are thought to be genetically distinct from the more numerous elephants further south. They are often scattered in small, isolated groups of less than 100 and are at risk of local extinction.

Mali’s Gourma elephants, once a magnet for tourists visiting the nearby desert city of Timbuktu, are one of the last two desert herds in the world. The other is in Namibia.

The decline in Mali has accelerated in recent months because of rising insecurity and a decrease in army protection, according to Amy Lewis from WILD Foundation.

Jihadist threat

Northern Mali’s vast desert expanses have been a hotbed of conflict ever since independence from France in the 1960s.

The Malian army was chased out of the region in 2012 by a loose alliance of local Tuareg rebels and jihadist groups. It returned a year later helped by a French military intervention, but Islamist militants continue to roam the area and exploit trafficking corridors.

Sophie Raviers, the UN’s environment representative in Mali, suspects the illegal trade in elephant tusks is financing the region’s motley band of jihadist groups.

“Our investigations point to links between the poachers and armed terrorist groups,” she told FRANCE 24’s sister radio RFI. “[The poachers] help finance these groups through ivory trafficking.”

Environment activists have welcomed the Malian government’s decision to beef up ranger patrols in Gourma, while calling for the deployment of soldiers as well.

“Several studies have shown that the deployment of army units in areas where elephants migrate helps reduce the number of poaching incidents,” said Raviers.

Mali’s nature conservation authority has also called for military backing, noting that isolated rangers were easy targets for smugglers and terrorist groups.