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Mali Elephant Project

Current initiative


Elephants in habitat

Mali elephants in their habitat. Credit: WILD Foundation

Mali's "desert elephants" are the northernmost population of elephants, one of just two elephant populations adapted for deserts, and undertake the longest elephant migration in the world, and have coexisted with the region's many cultures for millennia. However, pressures on both people and elephants are growing - the future of the desert elephants is highly uncertain in this land prone to conflict and lawlessness.

WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada have pioneered an approach to community-based natural resource management that is succeeding in protecting natural resources for elephants and people. The initiative is trying to secure the future of the elephants through measures that provide lasting protection of key dry season and migration habitats, reduce human-elephant conflict, and counter poaching. 


The WILD Foundation


The Gourma region that lies within the Timbuktu and Mopti administrative Regions.

The Gourma elephants range throughout the year broadly within the bend of the Niger River in Mali southward to the border region with Burkina Faso, generally between 14.30°N and 16.50°N, and 0.55°W and 3.4°W. 

The elephant range can be thought of as being in two halves: the wet (south) and the dry (north) season ranges. The border between them roughly follows the RN16 between Sevare and Gao, the only metalled road in the region. The north is characterized by open sandy steppe and savannah with sparse trees, sparsely vegetated dune formations, and shrubby woodland stands are found in lowlands and drainage-ways. The south is dominated by bands of low and relatively thick ‘tiger bush’ complex alternating with dune, open steppe and vegetated dune formations. 

The Gourma Region is managed under a variety of traditional systems of natural resource management, reflecting the multiple ethnicities found here, including Tuareg, Bella, Songhai, Peul, Rimaibe, Dogon, Tellem and Maure. 

While the north of the elephant range is predominantly a pastoral area, the south is an agricultural and agro-pastoral area, which together support the following socio-economic systems:

  • The pastoral systems of the Tuareg and Peulh.
  • The agropastoral system of the Peulh, Sonrhai, Bellah (“black” Tuaregs) and Dogon, in which animals are kept around the villages during the dry season, but moved north in the dry season, while fields are cultivated in small parcels around villages and from cleared bush often situated in bottomlands.
  • The Dogons, Sonrhai and Peulhs rimaïbes for whom agriculture is their principal activity and cultivate large fields of grain, and sell their cereals in local markets.
  • Gardening is practiced by sedentary populations (chiefly Bellah and Sonrhai) around perennial water-holes growing millet, sorghum, maize, and watermelons in the wet season, and vegetables and spices for the rest of the year. This is a recent activity in the Gourma, encouraged by aid organizations in response to the droughts of the mid-1980s. 

Unfortunately, gardens around water sources in the north of the elephant range impede elephant access to water and are therefore vulnerable to trampling, while certain crops are a temptation for hungry elephants on their way to water. Development at Lake Gossi has almost completely surrounded this permanent lake and it is now avoided by the elephant herds.

In addition, the Peulh of the Delta use this area as wet season pasture and human-elephant conflict can arise when animals enter cultivated fields. Many of the large herds of livestock come from this area, belonging to affluent individuals in the river towns and beyond who invest in cattle and hire impoverished herders to tend them. These herds have greatly increased in size and number since the 1990s, and are a substantial threat to ecosystem integrity.

The size of Switzerland, Gourma is an extensive and remote area where rule of law is weak. Government enforcement agencies are tarnished by corruption and have virtually no capacity or resources. With such poor official protection, local community support for elephant conservation is crucial. 

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected African Elephant Loxodonta africana

Products in trade

Ivory, which is in high demand in China and south-east Asian nations.

Overview of the problem

Poaching for ivory in the Gourma region of Mali was virtually non-existent before 2012, but following the retreat of government and the occupation of the elephant range by armed jihadist and rebel groups, and the accompanying lawlessness and firearms into the elephant range, poaching began in earnest.

Poaching escalated in 2015 as security decreased further. The lawlessness, coupled with armed groups seeking revenue to sustain their operations, allowed traffickers to act with impunity and the elephant population is now being targeted by illegal traffickers emboldened by the lack of government presence and insecurity. 

Some local people are traffickers and some are recruited by traffickers to act as guides and poachers. The motivation for local people (other than traffickers) is money, particularly where the conflict has destroyed their livelihoods, or where they have become socially outcast to some degree.

The anti-IWT initiative

The initiative for tackling poaching evolved from existing activities that delivered local benefits from elephant conservation; consequently, when elephants started being poached local people were keen to put a stop to it.

Before the threat of poaching intensified, the Mali Elephant Project had already been working (since 2009) with local communities to empower them in finding ways for local people and elephants to thrive.

The local people have largely (85%) subsistence livelihoods and their perspective was that losing elephants would be a sign that the ecosystem was no longer good for humans. There was a strong understanding of the problems of resource degradation and the need for sustainable management, and that the threats facing the elephants were often the same as the threats to local livelihoods, resulting from an ecosystem under strain from environmental change and expanding human impact. 

Each ethnicity had their own systems of resource management. The problem was they were reluctant to respect the those of other ethnicities.

A model was developed for collective sustainable resource management that involved all clans and ethnicities within a particular area. The approach was founded in decentralization legislation which gives local communities rights over their natural resources. The management systems were based on traditional governance structures (management committee and enforcement patrols by teams of youth) and protected the elephant migration route and key habitats, and regulated the use of water, forest, pasture, and game. These were supplemented with alternative livelihood activities (particularly targeting women) that further incentive CBNRM systems.

When poaching began in 2012 the project convened a big 4-day community meeting to discuss the challenges faced by those living in the Gourma - including elephant poaching - with the aim of finding ways to cope. Local people were concerned that they could not get cereals because the supply vehicles were being hi-jacked and so the project arranged for grain to be brought in by donkey cart. Communities leaders issued edicts branding poachers as shameful and thieves as they stole from the community and vigilance networks of youth were established to detect and gather information about poaching incidents.

These community structures contained poaching for 3 years (despite lawlessness and the absence of government) until the security decreased further and international traffickers targeted the elephant range and an armed enforcement unit was required to target these criminal networks.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Performance-based payments/incentives for patrolling or guarding
Un-paid (voluntary) community scouts
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT
Further detail

Community eco-guards conduct natural resource management, protection, and restoration activities. They also detect elephant poaching. They are paid small incentive payments initially for actions undertaken (not salaries). 

As the resource protection activities begin to provide tangible benefits, incentive payments become unnecessary; some communities are already autonomous, however, this generally requires high levels of social cohesion and the conflict mitigates against this.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Subsistence resource access/use
Lease payments
Further detail

The project has empowered and strengthened community institutions in making resource management decisions. Examples include decisions that have protected pasture by creating fire breaks and allowing tree regeneration, thereby increasing the natural resource availability. As a result, the livestock of communities conducting these activities are worth more at the market, give more milk, produce more young and are healthier.

As well as benefits from CBNRM, the local population is able to earn additional income by sustainable harvesting and marketing of products for which there is a ready market (e.g. hay, animal forage, gum Arabic, medicinal plants etc.) to provide an added incentive to controlling unsustainable use and preventing degradation.

The local population is able to earn additional income by charging outside users – such as the wealthy owners of “prestige herds” from neighbouring towns, who want access to water and forage for their cattle.

Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife

Preventive measures to deter wildlife
Further detail

Eco-guards raise awareness about how to avoid conflict. Community meetings are held to discuss any problems of conflict and devise solutions. This often involves introducing alternative livelihood schemes. Some women have planted chillis around their garden to deter elephants; while community eco-guards have facilitated water access for elephants during the dry season to avoid human-elephant conflict around waterholes. 

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Further detail

The CBNRM model requires communities to come together and take responsibility for managing their resources in a way that benefits all. Effective resource management and elephant protection both depend on united communities, making reconciliation and promoting social cohesion an integral part of resource management.

Additionally, for the communities in the region, knowing the national and international significance of the elephant population has given the local population a sense of pride in the ‘specialness’ of their area.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

Between 2007 and 2009, using the knowledge gained during the research phase, the team focused on outreach activities including consultation workshops and an attitude survey to understand local attitudes and provide the opportunity for local input into issues surrounding the human-elephant relationship. This information was used to disseminate awareness materials to the variety of stakeholders from urban populations, to local communities, projects, and programmes, tourists and visitors. It also launched a schools programme on elephants and how to live with them peaceably.  The aim of these outreach activities was to build consensus within Mali on the need to secure the future for the elephants and to provide the information needed to reach that consensus.

Has the initiative made a difference?

Between 2012 - 2015, poaching was contained through the use of social sanctions as leaders sent powerful decrees branding elephant poachers as thieves and teams of young men identified perpetrators. However, these local eco-guards requested the support of armed enforcement agencies that would be able to arrest poachers and traffickers. Without community action during the first three years, it is likely that these elephants would have experienced uncontrolled poaching and could be close to annihilation because, in addition to high levels of lawlessness, there was no wildlife service or government capacity to act against poachers. 

In 2015, there was an escalation in poaching due to the deterioration in security associated with attacks by extremist groups trying to derail the peace process coupled with the involvement of international trafficking networks actively targeting local people to recruit accomplices. 134 elephants were lost over the next two years (83 in 2015 and 51 in 2016). The creation of a governmental anti-poaching unit floundered due to lack of government capacity. It was estimated that if the 2016 poaching rate continued, this internationally important elephant population could disappear by 2021.

Following the initial deployment of the anti-poaching unit no poaching occurred for 13 consecutive months. However, the replacement of an experienced team by a new, untrained one in March 2018 provided the opportunity for 11 poaching incidents to occur between April and June 2018. Since then, however, fewer than 2 elephants/year have been illegally killed.

Poaching rates have been determined through the reports from community members throughout the elephant range who contact the field team about poached elephants. Verification was conducted by DNEF (when their agents were present and able to go into the field), the project field team and the anti-poaching unit, decreased security in 2018 coupled with the inexperienced unit meant that some reports could not be verified at that time.

The initiative has also been valuable in terms of mobilising local communities to act collectively to halt resource degradation and protect elephants; in decreasing habitat loss and promoting restoration (and therefore resilience to cope with climate variability); in providing occupations for unemployed youth; in providing income generating opportunities for women; and in promoting social cohesion.

What works and why

The CBNRM systems are extremely popular and working well, to the degree that if the elephant range hadn't been overcome by the conflict and lawlessness, it is likely that the whole of the >32,000km2 range would be under resource management systems by now. The majority of the community are committed to elephant conservation.

Local people see elephants as an indicator of a healthy ecosystem upon which their livelihoods depend; elephants are indicators of a ‘healthy’ environment and their livelihoods depend on this, which can also be described as a diverse, resilient ecosystem. This has fostered the understanding of the need to regulate resource use.

Elephants also provide local people with a sense of wonder, mystery on top of an underlying belief that every species has a right to exist, and contributes something unique to the ecosystem. Local people understand that by sustainably managing natural resources and preventing overexploitation and illegal crime (particularly by outsiders), the project brings benefits (tangible and intangible), a sense of empowerment, and improves livelihoods. 

It also works because it is based on existing structures and competencies, with which local people are familiar, including strong and culturally appropriate leadership. The following have been important for the initiative's success:

  • The project’s success in building strong community solidarity owes much to the personal qualities and facilitation skills of the field manager who is from the region. Indeed, the project team was entirely Malian and although this meant they might not have been the most experienced, qualified or capable on paper, their capacity was built progressively and it meant that it was able to continue even during the conflict period.
  • Community leaders have played a key role in the project and have exercised their influence to help stigmatise poaching. For example, leaders have issued edicts stating that the killing of elephants amounts to stealing from everyone. This is a powerful message in a culture where being labeled a thief is a disgrace.
  • Building on existing methods and systems and not trying to introduce new activities or systems has been a big factor. This has enabled local people to contribute their knowledge and ideas to the solution. The focus has been on the governance and use of existing “assets”; and the way existing activities are conducted.

The use of national policy and legislation has also been a factor. The CBNRM system is well grounded in law, as Mali’s decentralisation legislation gives local communities legitimate rights to manage and protect their natural resources. Although Mali’s decentralisation legislation has been generally deemed something of a failure, the project has made the most of it.

In addition the project has worked with government and led the initiative to create a new protected area covering the whole of the elephant range, using the biosphere model. Core elephant habitat is strictly protected while buffer and multi-use zones will be managed by the local community resource management agreements. The new Gourma Elephant Reserve thereby provides these agreements with additional legislative force and provides foresters with the mandate to help with the enforcement. The legislation was adopted by cabinet in 2020 and is predicted to have completed is passage through government in 2021.

In summary:

  • Establishing community engagement and solidarity needs deep cultural understanding. (The presence of Westerners can distort perceptions.)
  • Helping local people to find solutions using what they know and are familiar with is more effective than imposing them.
  • Transparent processes are required to build trust and prevent some individuals benefitting at the expense of others.
  • Local communities respond to actions, not words.
  • Using existing supportive features of the local context is more cost-effective than imposing new infrastructure.
  • Continually monitor the tendency to make assumptions based on simple observations as transferring experience from one context to another can lead to misunderstanding. Effort invested in “understanding why” enables actions to be targeted for maximal effect.
  • Using national legislation to “enable” and empower local action, as well as local action informing the need for additional enabling legislation – the two -way interaction is a winning combination.
  • Protected areas are vital

Factors for success

Supportive national policy/legislation for devolved governance of natural resources

Long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Effective and trusted community leaders

Further detail

The CBNRM system is well grounded in law. Mali’s decentralisation legislation gives local communities legitimate rights to manage and protect their natural resources. Although Mali’s decentralisation legislation has been generally deemed something of a failure, the project has made the most of it.

Nothing could have happened without long-term donor support.

Before any action takes places, communities are brought together to discuss until they agree on the nature of the problem. The project provides information collected from studies to help clarify the problem. Once there is a common perception, the discussion moves onto potential solutions.

Community leaders have played a key role in the project and have exercised their influence to help stigmatise poaching. For example, leaders have issued edicts stating that the killing of elephants amounts to stealing from everyone. This is a powerful message in a culture where being labeled a thief is a disgrace.

Community leaders retain strong influence over the communities, thus their edicts saying that “anyone who kills elephants is stealing from the local community” etc, was very effective.

What doesn’t work and why

The success of this initiative in preventing elephant poaching has been undermined the following:


  • Operating in a lawless crisis area with high levels of insecurity, banditry, kidnapping and jihadist insurgency is an obvious challenge, coupled with the lack of sufficient funds to implement proven models in these conditions.


  • A paralysed government with no capacity to provide security and law enforcement.
  • Corruption and the lack of government capacity (institutional, technical, and financial, although the first two are the most serious) for wildlife management and to act against poaching.
  • Ineffective government policy and legislation for dealing with wildlife crimes.


  • There is a lack of focus and attention by international players on the importance of "bottom-up" approaches. The peace process, for example, has focused on top-down solutions, but these are not stable without the "bottom-up" engagement.
  • There is too much focus on the activities and technologies compared to the process of how they can be used.
  • There also seems to be a lack of awareness of how cost-effective such grass-roots processes can be if correctly conducted and a lack of focus on how to detect and support existing effective initiatives. It is difficult to be effective quickly enough when operating in a situation of urgency.
  • There is also a lack of awareness of how reconciliation and peace-building require a tangible focus that provides concrete benefits to be sustainable. CBNRM is an excellent vehicle for this.
  • The limited and minimal resources available to deal with the challenges faced and the consequences of major geopolitical forces (civil war, terrorism, a global economy that externalises environmental costs).
  • Administrative and bureaucratic delays in the large agencies (UN, GEF) which can kill small projects or severely impact their efficacy, particularly in unpredictable environments. Delays, for example, prevent negative developments from being "nipped in the bud". As a result, they escalate, become more entrenched and much more difficult to deal with.


Lessons learned

Communities can make a large contribution to controlling the IWT but alone cannot contain a focused onslaught by heavily armed trafficking networks. Armed enforcement is required, and armed enforcement must follow a doctrine that builds relationships and supports communities to facilitate an intelligent approach to target their anti-poaching efforts, rather than, for example, blindly patrolling, or focusing on the poachers rather than the middle-men and traffickers.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of coordinated and coherent sectoral policies/legislation (For example, land use planning, agricultural etc...)

Lack of long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Further detail

While solutions are there, the lack of sufficient funds to adequately deliver them at the scale required to have the necessary impact has made it difficult to provide a clearer demonstration of impact. Operating in a war zone greatly magnifies the funds required.

The absence of any capacity (technical, institutional, financial) within the wildlife division and its mother organization – the DNEF (Direction Nationale des Eaux et Forets) is a key problem. 

Organisers, donors and partners

The Mali Elephant Project is a project of WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada


European Union Development Fund


Canadian Government through the UN Trust Fund administered by MINUSMA (Multi-dimensional

USFWS Africa Elephant Fund

UK IWT Challenge Fund

Tusk Trust

Wildlife Ranger Fund



UK Gov Darwin Initiative

Elephant Crisis Fund

For further information contact Dr Susan Canney, Project Director (