For decades, the population of a rare species of elephants in the Gourma region of Mali seemed to hold steady. They were one of two existing herds of desert elephants known in the world, foraging far and wide in desperately barren conditions.
In 2012, poachers began targeting the Gourma elephants. Now, in the face of ongoing political instability — armed militias and traffickers in arms and drugs — it seems the odds against these long-legged, small-tusked creatures are even higher.
According to newly released figures compiled from aerial footage, only about 350 elephants remain. The Mali Elephant Project, a collaboration between the Wild Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada, reports that 83 elephants were killed in 2015. Already in the first two weeks of this year, 16 elephants fell victim to international ivory trafficking. And, the project warned recently, Mali’s desert elephants could go extinct in just a few years.
In December 2014, however, things began to fall apart.
The poaching that started with armed conflict and civil war in 2012 has continued, said Susan Canney, project leader of the Mali Elephant Project. Canney, who began working with Malian elephants in 2003, never imagined that her work in zoology would lead to counterterrorism efforts. After the civil war broke out in 2012, however, it became an inevitable part of conservation efforts. “Communities before the conflict were getting on, but it’s opening up all the old social wounds and it’s wreaked social havoc,” she said.
Sophie Ravier, the UN’s environment representative in Mali, told VICE News last October that a connection between poaching and terrorism was likely.
“We strongly suspect there is a link between the poachers and the armed terrorists, who could be relying on the illegal ivory trade to finance some of their activities,” she said. “There are all sorts of trafficking activities in the region: drug trafficking, human trafficking … Those illegal trades are also linked to armed terrorist organizations. It is possible that the ivory is being trafficked along the same routes.”
In an effort to combat this link, Canney and her group recruited a network of over 500 young men throughout the elephant migratory range to monitor elephants and poaching activities. They offered food in return for the work — less than the 30 to 50 dollars a day that jihadist groups were reportedly paying young recruits. But the elephant project succeeded in putting together a strong team. “None of them joined the armed groups,” Canney said. “Protecting elephants was considered a noble job.”
This type of social monitoring managed to keep things under relative control between 2012 and 2014. According to Canney, 18 elephants were killed over three years. Several poachers were caught and arrested. An ivory trafficker was arrested, but fled to Libya.
Related: Terrorist Groups Are Poaching Elephants in Northern Mali, Warns UN
In December 2014, however, things began to fall apart. Poaching orders started coming from outside of the region, and local families began receiving offers of well-paid jobs as accomplices to poaching missions, said Canney. Potential recruits were told that each tusk would be worth 3 million West African CFA francs, or almost 5,000 dollars.
In an effort to combat this new wave of poaching, The Mali Elephant Project worked with the national government to create new ranger posts. They raised money for communications, vehicles, equipment, and training. In spite of the seemingly forward momentum, Canney reports enormous challenges. “The security situation has festered; the military has been deployed to bases, but they have no resources to do anything.”
Part of what makes the Gourma elephants so unique is the fact that they’ve managed to survive. Using satellite tracking, scientists have been able to establish that the elephants travel in a “unique circular movement pattern” over 32,000 square kilometers in search of food and water. According to a paper published by Jake Wall and other scientists in Biological Conservation in 2013, this is the most vast migration route every recorded for elephants.
The elephants’ migration is a testament to their perseverance and tenacity to survive in a place where water and food are increasingly hard to come by.
“The thing that’s amazing about them is how they’ve managed to survive in this incredibly harsh environment; how they manage to find things at certain times of the year; they just pick their way through the landscape,” said Canney. “They are incredible survivors.”
According to population projections based on the 2015 average poaching per month, the Gourma elephants could be extinct in three years. The calculation, released this week by the Mali Elephant Project, is an indication of conditions that have an impact not just on elephants, but also on humans.
Canney recalls initial meetings with community leaders and residents as they began their collective conservation efforts. The local sentiment was overwhelmingly in support of the elephants. Locals feared that if the elephants disappeared it would mean the environment was no longer safe for humans, either. The Gourma elephants are a barometer for what’s going on in the country, said Canney.
“They are the indication of a healthy environment,” she said, “something that livelihoods depend on.”