The Incredible Elephants of the Sahara
African elephants are known for hanging around rivers and mashes in the savanna and the edge of jungles. However, their range actually extends well into the north, all the way up to the Sahara desert. In Mali's Gourma region, around the city of Timbuktu, there exists a species of desert-adapted African elephant (Loxodonta Africana). Every year, they undertake an amazing migration across an area of 32,000 square kilometers (over 12,000 square miles) in search of food and water. This annual journey was recently recorded by researchers from the group Save the Elephants, University of British Columbia, and Oxford University, who attached GPS collars to nine of the elephants and tracking them by satellite. Their report documents the elephants' record-breaking trek to survive in the largest and harshest elephant range in the world.
'It's incredible these elephants have survived. They have a truly stressful life with the lack of water and food, and their giant range reflects that,' said Jake Wall of Save the Elephants, Kenya and the University of British Columbia, lead author of the study.
They found that the greatest threat to the Gourma elephants is not the difficult environment, but the threat from humans.
Mali is a large nation in Western Africa which is undergoing tremendous upheaval. Earlier this year, a group of soldiers seized the presidential palace and declared the government dissolved and constitution suspended. The nation is currently being led by an interim government. Rebels from the north, associated with radical Islamists like Al-Qaeda, declared secession. Plans are underway to take back this northern territory with international assistance.
The lawlessness of this area makes the possibility for widespread poaching even greater. For the relatively poor people of Mali, ivory and other elephant products can be very appealing to sell. Just this year, three of the desert elephants were killed. More death is sure to follow if the government cannot take back control of its natural conservation.
Nonetheless, the Gourma elephants continue their annual migrations because it is what they do. They overcome the extreme heat and drought of the Sahara in order to make it to their water and food destinations.
According to Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Oxford University and founder of Save the Elephants, "We now fear that they may become victims of civil disturbance in the North of Mali due to the uprising currently taking place."
A new anti-poaching initiative by the WILD foundation and International Conservation Fund of Canada has been established to engage local communities and foresters in defense of the elephants. At this point, this is the only effort being made to keep the poachers at bay.
For more information, check out Save the Elephants
This study has been published in the journal, Biological Conservation
Desert Elephants image via Shutterstock