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.