Pixabay. Mali

Mali elephants, Africa’s northernmost herd, considered to be among the most extremely endangered of Africa’s elephants, being slaughtered in staggering numbers by ivory traffickers, were estimated to be extinct within the next 3 years, according to Susan Canney, director of the Mali Elephant Project, an initiative of the Wild Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

Ivory traffickers took advantage of a security vacuum in the Mali region, and they  managed to kill 163 elephants since 2012.

To defend the 300 or so elephants that remain, Mali has formed an anti-poaching brigade to patrol a Switzerland-sized area called the Gourma, with the force fending off poachers and assisting isolated communities along the elephants’ migratory route.

Pixabay. Desert Elephant

The brigade is made up off rangers and army forces, Since the brigade deployed nine months ago, not a single elephant has been lost to poachers, said Col. Major Soumana Timbo, the deputy director of National Directorate of Water and Forests, which oversees the rangers.

The ivory dealers are quite ruthless and take advantage of the poverty-stricken areas, promising hefty pay for elephant tusks, a tempting offer in a poor area where people have access to weapons from the ongoing conflicts occurring there, said Nomba Ganame, the Mali Elephant Project’s field manager.

This led Mali to build a dedicated government force to try to put an end to the poaching.The Army Ranger Brigade is led by Rory Young, him and his team train and support anti-poaching operations.

Community engagement is also critical to successful anti-poaching operations, “without the community there is no solution,” Mr. Young said. Building supportive relationships with the local populations helps the brigade stay informed of what is happening in the region, which in turn helps the force protect the elephants and the community.

While the brigade has successfully prevented poaching since February, officials worry ivory traffickers are just waiting for an opportunity to resume operations. Putting a permanent dent in poaching will take arrests and convictions that break apart ivory trafficking networks for good, experts said.

“The whole law enforcement pathway, from intelligence in the beginning to conviction in the end, needs to be looked at,” said Chris Thouless, a strategic adviser at Save the Elephants. It is no easy task though, as the ivory trafficking networks are vast and complex, extending far beyond Mali’s borders.

Sgt. Djibril Sangare, a ranger with the army ranger brigade, said he has learned how to stay calm under the constant threat of attack, finding strength in the mission. Protecting elephants is vital for Mali’s and the world’s heritage, he said, adding that he had never seen an elephant before joining the brigade and now considers them the greatest animal.

“The work,” Sergeant Sangare said, “it is love.”