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Desert Elephants of Mali Endangered by Severe Drought


The worst drought in 26 years is threatening the survival of Mali's rare desert elephants.

Drought is not only affecting nomadic herders across the Sahara, but also animals like the rare Gourma elephants that roam the sahelian plains edging the Sahara desert.

Only about 400 of the desert elephants remain in northern Mali and experts are worried that water shortages are threatening the elephants' survival.

Jake Wall is an ecologist working with Save the Elephants, a conservation organization that aims to protect elephants and their habitat in Africa.

"This year the elephants were hit with a drought and we saw that one of the lakes the elephants depend on heavily for water actually dried up this year," said Wall. "This is the first that has happened in the last 26 years. So we were very worried about the elephants this year and their ability to pull through the dry season."

Six elephants were found dead this year due to lack of water. When their main water source, Lake Banzena, dried up, many elephants searched for water at bore holes dug by nomadic herdsmen.

Young elephants were particularly at risk because their trunks are not long enough to reach the water in these deep wells.

The Gourma elephants inhabit a semi-arid zone southeast of Timbuktu. They are the northernmost herd of elephants in sub-Saharan Africa and up until now they have adapted remarkably well to the harsh conditions of the desert.

"They are extremely good at finding water. They travel huge distances through the course of the year. They have probably one of the longest migrations of any elephant in Africa. That is because they are constantly on the move to find water and food necessary," added Wall. "Also they put up with extremely high temperatures that reach 50 degrees celsius on occasion. They are just very rugged, hardy elephants."

Despite their adaptation to desert life, the elephant population was nearing a crisis when the first rains of the season fell in Gourma last week and provided essential water sources.

But Wall says climate change means rainfall in Mali is less predictable. If there is another drought next dry season, he says, the Gourma elephants could be in real trouble.

"One thing that could be done for these elephants is to put aside space for them. To try and establish protected areas that they can use and where they can drink in peace and not have to compete with livestock and people for water and for space," said Wall.

Wall says traditionally the Gourma elephants have lived in harmony with the nomadic Tuareg and their livestock. But as rainwater becomes scarce, peaceful co-existence may give way to conflict over water.