Implementers of an international project to help endangered elephants in Mali want to prove that by doing so, they can also help local communities adapt to climate change in the Sahel.
The Malian government lists elephants in Gourma in the country's far desert north as highly endangered. A drought in the 1970’s killed most of the country's elephants leading the population to dwindle from several thousand down to 350.
Often seen near Lake Banzena, about 400 kilometres south of Gao, these elephants have the largest migration route of any known elephant group according to the World Bank-funded Gourma Biodiversity Conservation Project (PCVBGE), with an estimated home range of 30,000 square kilometres.
But conservationists say that climate change is leading to increased tensions as elephants and the local population vie for access to water.
Friend or foe?
"The drought in the Sahel in the 1970's created a shortage of watering holes," says Namory Traore, a director at Mali’s National Centre for Nature Conservation.
As climate change affects more people in this desert country, Lake Banzena has become one of the last remaining water sources for both animals and people. The nearby Lake Gossi, about 150 kilometres south of Gao, has begun to dry out, and there are fears that the region can no longer support even this smaller elephant population.
Many inhabitants of Gourma have turned to agriculture as desertification is making pastoral life increasingly difficult. Now, thirsty elephants are beginning to raid their newly-cultivated fields.
"Sometimes the elephants even break into our reserves and chase people to get the fruits, because they don't have enough water," says Alou Tambura, a herder in Haire, about 150 kilometres from Lake Banzena.
The World Bank-funded biodiversity project is designed to protect both animals and humans in drought-prone regions. Its main focus is to facilitate elephants' passage through inhabited areas.
The elephants migrate counter-clockwise, covering a 450 kilometre circular route across northern Mali. After spending the dry season at Lake Banzena, they then head south to Burkina Faso.
Greener pastures with elephants
The normally arid Gourma has some of the best pasture in the region during the rainy season, typically from June to October. Pastoralists come from as far away as Mopti, Mali and Burkina Faso to feed their animals in lean times, which is also when elephants arrive.
"The problem we have is the lack of water. We have excellent pasture, but there is often not enough water for elephants and humans to share," says herder Tambura.
But the elephants are actually helping herders find water, according to conservationist Traore. "The best water sources are hidden in the forest, and the elephants open it up by trampling down the bush and exposing the grass to light. They break off small branches, which goats cannot reach. Often you'll see a herder with his goats following the elephants through the forest."
Traore says elephants have become an integral part of the planting season.
"Many herders and farmers take the arrival of the elephants as the start of the rainy season. They won't plant until they see them, because the elephants won't move until they're sure they can find water."
The PCVBGE project says local communities have an economic incentive to save the elephants.
Revive land through animals
"We are developing a tourist industry here based on wildlife in a way similar to safari," says Binama Sissoko, director of PCVBGE. "Guides who come from Bamako have little sympathy or understanding for life in the north, so we are training local guides and building tourist camps so that northerners can profit from, and fight to save, their natural resources."
Mali’s Ministry of Environment has reported climate change threatening giraffes, lions, cheetahs, dwarf hippos and 15 bird species throughout the country.
Organisers are looking at the elephant project as a test to see whether local communities can also benefit from saving an endangered species in areas with shrinking cultivable land and water supplies.
Herder Tambura says elephants are no longer a threat to him, and have, instead, helped him find water for his animals. "With more education, awareness and water wells, elephants and people can live together."