IAIN DOUGLAS-HAMILTON:
Mali is home to the northernmost
elephants in Africa. They once ranged from the
coastal waters of Guinea to the Nile River in Egypt. There are roughly 500 of these
Sahelian desert elephants living in an area
called the Gourma. This photo by
David Coulson shows what was once a rich
savanna landscape, abounding with all the plains game typical
of Africa, like gazelles, giraffe, lions, and
of course elephants. Elephants are no strangers
to climate change. The image of the Trust
for African Rock Art shows us that 10,000
years ago elephants were common in many
parts of the desert. This elephant was captured
by ancient artists showing the long legged
stride that is still typical of its
descendants today. Since 1970, the
range of elephants has declined following
terrible droughts that dried up the seasonal lakes to the west. Drought has also led to
nomads settling in one place and has put additional pressure
on the remaining resources. The range in 2009 is now a
fraction of its former self. We learn about elephant
choices and needs by watching their movements. Over time, we can
build up a picture of what is important to them
and what challenges they face. Save the Elephants tracks
elephants with high tech GPS collars linked to the internet
through a satellite phone network. These collars provide hourly
updates of elephant locations. Here we see positions
of two bull elephants being sent by their collars. The Mali elephants are
the northernmost in Africa and have what we believe is
the longest migration pattern of anywhere on the continent. Living in the Sahel, on
the shores of the Sahara, they are extremely
vulnerable to climate change. Daytime temperatures can
soar up to 50 degrees during the hot season. Sandstorms are
frequent in the lead up to the start of the
rains at the end of May. Our tracking data is showing
survival of the Gourma elephants is directly
linked to the water cycle and the elephants’
ability to access surface water. The Gourma region gets only
one rainy season each year, which serves to recharge
a series of shallow lakes which holds surface water
for the rest of the year. From January onwards, as
the hot season progresses, a number of these lakes dry
up, concentrating the elephants in a few areas. By May, one lake in particular
is the central point for nearly all elephant
herds in the Gourma. Called Banzena, it
also provides water to thousands of
livestock and herdsmen. The struggle for water
got worse in March 2008, during a Save the Elephants
collaring mission. Our team received
news of elephants that had become trapped
in a shallow well while migrating to Banzena. A third of the way
into a 120 kilometer trip, they had
attempted to drink from a series of shallow wells
dug by herdsmen for cattle, and four of them had
slipped in and become stuck. The elephants had spent three
days trapped in the hole. One had already died. Our team worked frantically
to free the surviving three, using trucks and ropes. Two of the infants were so
exhausted they could not stand. Later, they would both
regain their feet. But without the
leadership of their family and miles from water, at
least one of them would die. A larger female was also pulled
free, and surprised everybody when she regained her
feet straight away. A tracking collar
attached around her neck would later show us that
she sprinted 80 kilometers to Banzena in a desperate
bid to find water and rejoin her family. The fate of the
Mali elephants hangs in the regularity
of the water cycle and their ability to find water
at critical times of the year. Minor disruption to the
climate in the Sahel could have disastrous
consequences for their population. Such a disruption
occurred recently when the rains failed in 2008
and led to a water shortage across the Gourma. In early 2009, Banzena,
which normally holds water throughout the year,
dried up completely, leaving herds of elephants
and thousands of cattle desperate for water. The Mali government was
forced to pump water for the elephants. In an effort to help
them, Save the Elephants contributed by building
a concrete reservoir to hold this water and supplied
diesel fuel for pumping. Despite the efforts, it was
early rains that saved the day and gave the elephants
another chance. The Tuareg word for water,
“aman,” is a synonym for life. Climate change, exacerbated
by too many livestock, will disrupt life in the Sahel. This threatens the fate of
the last Sahelian elephants. By tracking their
movements, we can better understand their needs. Save the Elephants provides the
Mali government with vital data for better land use planning. To learn more about Save
the Elephants, please visit our website. We need your support
to secure their future.