Mali Elephant Project

Mali Elephant Project

Brigade-Forester patrol.
Village Land Mapping.
Meeting of the vigilance network.
Project background

Species of focus: 



Gourma Region - land under traditional systems of natural resource management but the area is inhabited by multiple ethnicities each with their own systems.

Summary description: 

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.

Poaching for ivory in the Gourma region of Mali - a biodiversity hotspot and elephant migration route - had been virtually non existent before 2012. However, the rebellion and subsequent coup in March 2012 led to occupation by armed groups in the north, and an influx of lawlessness and firearms into the elephant range. The Gourma range - through which 12 per cent of all West African elephants pass - is now being targeted by illegal traffickers emboldened by the lack of government presence and insecurity.

Before the threat of poaching intensified, the Mali Elephant Project had already been working (since 2009) with local communities to help them find sustainable solutions to managing their natural resources that benefit both people and the elephants. The project’s field team (all of them Malian) have maintained a continuous dialogue with local people. Problems are discussed in the context of peoples' daily lives, allowing people to talk about the challenges they face including (but not limited to) those that are related to living alongside elephants. The result is a detailed picture of how the elephants and people interact. It shows that the threats facing the elephants are often the same as the threats to local livelihoods, and derive from an ecosystem under strain from environmental change. The list includes pressure from: rising populations from outside the area as people search for new land to farm and dispossessed herders try shifting agriculture; refugees fleeing rebel held zones in the north; and expanding resource exploitation from urban centres.

At the root of the resource degradation that results is an anarchic use of natural resources - a free for all - that has degraded habitats and resources, impoverished livelihoods and exacerbated human-elephant conflict. In response the Mali Elephant Project has mobilised local communities through facilitating the development of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) systems that all can agree to. The CBNRM systems work along traditional resource management lines but includes all local ethnic groups and clans. The rules for resource use are set by a representative committee of elders, and enforcement is ensured by patrols of young men - eco-guardians - who can call on the support of government forest officials (when present) for enforcement.

Wherever possible, the Mali Elephant Project has used existing national policies to back up local community-based initiatives. The approach is founded in decentralisation legislation which gives local communities rights over their natural resources. Other examples are the ability to protect reserve pasture under the Charte Pastorale, and the formal designation of the community eco-guardians as Associations, which gives them added authority.

Land management type: 

Communally managed land
Unmanaged land

Product(s) in trade: 

Product value at site level: 

There are rumours of a new trafficking network operating in the area that is said to offer around US $4,000 per tusk.

Types of poachers: 

Gangs from outside

Details of 'other' poacher type: 

Trafficking networks recruiting local people to act as guides and poachers.
Project implementation

Is the project implemented by an external party? 


Implementing organisation: 

Wild Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada

Name of funding organisation(s): 

Not specified.

Community organisation(s) involved: 

Local communities, their representatives (elected and traditional), local and communal councils, women’s associations. Ethnicities include Tuareg, Bella, Songhai, Peul, Rimaibe, Dogon, Tellem and Maure

Was the project established specifically to engage communities in combatting IWT? 


Year the IWT project or component started 


Project status is currently: 

Community engagement

Approach taken to community engagement and its rationale: 

Community members are employed as game guards
Community members benefit from resource harvesting (e.g., small scale hunting; grazing; thatching grass) as conservation incentive
Community members are provided with other non-financial benefits as conservation incentives (e.g. Community patrolling uniforms or camping kit)


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; charging outside users – such as the wealthy owners of “prestige herds” from neighbouring towns - for access rights to water and forage for their cattle.

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 market, give more milk, produce more young and are healthier.


In the post conflict period, the project has played a role in improving local security. Effective resource management and elephant protection both depend on united communities, making reconciliation and promoting social cohesion an integral part of resource management This in turn encourages disarmament, the apprehension of bandits, and re-integrating former fighters into their communities.

The Mali Elephant Project’s influence on social cohesion and promoting solidarity to stand against the insecurity has laid foundations for an integrated community-government response to the latest spate of illegal wildlife trade.

It has also prevented radicalisation as young men generally prefer this safer option with  benefits that include the local status conferred by acting as a community “eco-guardian”, which is at least as valued as the small incentive payments they receive. 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.

Other non-financial benefits are described here:

The community engagement project is: 

Stand alone initiative

Do community guards carry firearms? 


Do community guards conduct joint patrols with formal guards? 


Are community guards unarmed, without armed backup? 


Do community guards have rights of arrest? 


Do community guards have specialist training 


Are community guards covered by military law in the case of someone being killed or wounded? 


The community has traditional authority to sanction poachers from within their community? 


What “rules of engagement” for working with communities does the case study address? 

Advance and recognize and respect the rights of local people to manage and benefit from wildlife
Build the capacity of local people to manage and benefit from wildlife
Include local people in wildlife monitoring and enforcement networks
Build capacity of local people to tackle IWT
Ensure wildlife generate benefits, both tangible and intangible, for local people
Ensure benefits are shared equitably
Acknowledge and address costs to communities from living alongside wildlife
Ensure partnerships to tackle IWT are transparent, accountable and built on the basis of mutual respect
Recognise and strengthen the legitimacy of local communities as critical partners

What has been the impact on poaching/IWT? 

Poaching levels have decreased

What has been the impact on wildlife populations? 

Not known/not documented

Further detail about the impact on poaching: 

Poaching was contained for the first 3 years through. 2015 saw a deterioration in security and an escalation in poaching. Until September 2016 the situation has been reduced to pre-2015 levels but could erupt at any moment. Without the community action during the first three years these elephants would have experienced uncontrolled poaching and be close to elimination; as not only are their high levels of lawlessness, there is no wildlife service or government capacity to act against poachers. The only government agents willing to leave the relative security of the settlements are the military who have only been able to undertake anti-poaching patrols because of the local intelligence that has enabled them to target their meagre resources.
Lessons learned about engaging communities

What worked about the community engagement approach and why? 

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 labelled a thief is a disgrace.

The project’s success in building strong community solidarity owes much to the personal qualities and skills of the field manager who is from the region. Indeed, the project team was entirely Malian and this meant that it was able to continue even during the conflict period.

The community eco-guardians are active in resource management activities, such as building fire-breaks and planting trees; they help to enforce agreed land use decisions; and, in the context of anti-poaching, they also provide illegal wildlife trade intelligence to government authorities.

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.

What did not work and why? 

Challenges include

  • Operating in an area with high levels of insecurity, banditry and jihadist insurgency.
  • The limited and minimal resources available to deal with the consequences of major geo-political forces (civil war, terrorism, a global economy that externalises environmental costs).
  • A lack of government capacity to provide security and law enforcement
  • A lack of a government wildlife service and capacity to act against poaching.
  • Ineffective policy and legislation for dealing with wildlife crimes.

Further comments or additional information about community engagement 

Lessons learnt include

  • 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 are 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.

Case study information is up to date as of: 

Bibliographic information

Main source(s) of information: 

Published documentation


Conservation, crime and communities: case studies of efforts to engage local communities in tackling illegal wildlife trade


Roe D (Ed)

Year of publication: 


Journal/Book/Series details: 

A contribution to the symposium "Beyond enforcement", South Africa



Place published: 

London, UK
Case study entry information

This case study entry compiled by: 

Susan Canney and Nomba Ganamé

Date of case study entry: 

Wednesday, 3 August, 2016