Thoughts on Conservation in the Sahel

The Sahel is an ecosystem on edge. It is transitional in its position between tropical West Africa and the Sahara. It is also at a pivotal point in its history where it could continue to degrade into desert if not managed properly. Despite intense pressure by grazing which are pushing the ecosystem close to the point of irreversible damage, they system seems resilient enough at the moment to come back to its former wholeness with proper care. This creates a remarkable opportunity to protect one of earth's most fascinating and dynamic landscapes before it is too late. Promising conservation initiatives such as the World Bank's Gourma Biodiversity Project seem especially well timed. The demographic situation in the Sahel of Mali is such that conservation efforts can work for the long-term benefit of the wildlife and the people without excessive change in the short-term for the lives of the people. It is not often that win-win situations are so readily available, but in areas like Banzena the population is small enough that relocation plans with compensation can work. The installation of wells at new village sites outside the core conservation areas will ease the burden on existing wetlands and provide a technical solution that can actually work to improve lives of both people and wildlife. When I first arrived in the Gourma, like some others involved in elephant conservation, I was skeptical about the proposal of relocating people. But now after spending 2 months in the Gourma at the peak of the dry season, studying the landscape, interviewing chiefs, and watching the people, I am convinced that relocation is necessary and is the best solution for all involved. The people of the Gourma, mostly Tuareg and Fulani, are traditionally nomadic and none have been settled in one place for more than 25 years. They are not bound to their current locations like those in most sedentary societies. The idea of relocating to a good grazing site with a well that provides water throughout the dry season should be an attractive alternative for most. The people are very close to the land and are aware of the degradation in recent years. Many I spoke to embrace the idea of conservation. They are not buffered from environmental change by bank accounts and pension plans like many in western nations. They depend directly on nature, thus interest in improved ecosystem health is immediately and directly related to their interest in their own well-being. The people of the Gourma are at a pivotal point in their history, just as the ecosystem itself. The current cultural context is compatible with present conservation plans, but the window of opportunity will not stay open for long. Capitalist influences lurk around the corner. There are a few young Tuaregs who speed recklessly around Lake Banzena in their new Landcruiser, purchased by their father who owns 10,000 head of cattle in the southern Gourma. They are admired by other young Tuaregs who may have never been in a motor vehicle, while older chiefs scorn them as bandits who are corrupting the balance. One Landcruiser racing around creates enough stress for the precarious dry-season existence of elephants around Banzena, just a foreshadow of trends that will continue without appropriate intervention. This leads me to thoughts on elephant tourism in the Gourma – an issue that simultaneously brings serious problems as well as hope for elephant conservation. At present, the Gourma elephants are very much afraid of motor vehicles. This I know from experience. One morning I had walked with my guide Mohammed for 3 km from our vehicle to quietly photograph elephants grazing during the day around Balu, 17 km southwest on Banzena. Toward the end of the morning when I had finished my work, we walked more than a kilometer east of the closest elephants and then Mohammed went to get the vehicle. Shortly after he left, a group of 12 bull elephants moved into the valley below me to eat some trees, approximately half a kilometer west. Then 15 minutes later they all started to run north in a cloud of dust and didn't stop until the next valley. It was a full 10 minutes more before I could even hear the sound of the vehicle approaching from the east. But they had apparently heard the small diesel motor long before I could. It is perplexing to see such massive animals afraid of something they could crush like an empty coke can, especially after witnessing the passive acceptance of vehicles by elephants in other parts of Africa. But the Mali elephants have obviously been harassed and their reaction is appropriate when you consider their history. The Gourma elephants live in a land traversed by camels, not vehicles. Vehicles are alien objects that alarm children, livestock and elephants alike. The elephants do not often see a vehicle and the only time they do they are being chased by it, by reckless ‘guides' trying to bring tourists for a closer look. There is at present no code of conduct or infrastructure to monitor the behavior of guides and the present harassment of elephants by occasional tourists is a major problem. Yet at the same time tourism offers income for local people and could become a sustainable alternative to overgrazing by livestock. There needs to be a program that enables responsible tourism while protecting the elephants from harassment. It has been suggested that installing blinds for observation at some of the water holes would be an appropriate alternative for viewing without vehicles. I can see how this could work in Inadjatafane where the area is relatively small, but based on my experience it is unlikely to work well in Banzena where the area is vast and it is difficult to predict where the elephants may come to water. Maybe their movements will change with less competition with livestock, but for now they do not often come to water in the daytime. I think installing a few blinds is a good idea, but in order to offer tourists a predictable encounter with elephants, there needs to be more. I actually think the elephants need to be habituated to motor vehicles. This would involve elephant researchers or conservation officials in one vehicle gradually approaching herds in the daytime until the elephants accept their presence. For this to work, the approach of all other vehicles will have to be eliminated until the elephants become comfortable with visitors. Then a system of certification and monitoring of tourist guides needs to be installed to ensure educated and responsible behavior. The idea of habituating elephants to vehicle is somewhat of a bold suggestion coming from me, someone who does not like to see industrial influence intrude on natural areas. But one must be pragmatic. The presence of vehicles in the Gourma is inevitable with the construction of a new highway linking Douentza with Tombouctou, cutting right through elephant range. Elephants and vehicles must learn to coexist. Just as implementing other conservation measures, creating a system of sustainable tourism will take time. But its role in my opinion is essential. Meanwhile I will do all I can to work with the researchers and conservationists to raise awareness for the special population of elephants and the magical landscape of the Sahel.View new photography at www.carltonward.com