Dr Susan Canney of Oxford’s Department of Zoology tells the story of her Mali Elephant Project, which is racing to protect one of only two desert elephant herds left in the world.

Desert elephants in the Gourma, central Mali, where humans are clearing elephant habitat and occupying their migration route

by Richard Lofthouse 

Dr Susan Canney (Wolfson, 2001), has just arrived back from Mali, where since 2002 she has led the Mali Elephant Project (MEP). We meet at the concrete building opposite the University Parks, where South Parks Road abruptly turns into St Cross Road. It may be non-descript, but the Tinbergen Building is home to one of the greatest zoology departments in the world.

Dr Susan Canney, research associate at the Department of Zoology, who leads the Mali Elephant Project from Oxford 

Even before we get up the stairs, I find out that Canney is desperate to acquire radio communications for dozens of Malian park rangers. At the same time she speaks of the six hundred Malian young men recruited by MEP, from local communities, to keep a protective eye on the 400-odd elephants that wander an area the size of Switzerland, called the Gourma. These men are a great source of hope because they have so far resisted the lure of fast money from Islamic extremists and armed groups who turned to poaching when government retreated since the secessionist civil war in 2012. They are paid only with the equivalent of food, but protecting elephants is congruent with long-held values. There is a certain pride that trumps money, for now at least.Survival in the dry season depends on access to water.
Elephants' survival in the dry season depends on access to water so if human activity dries lakes prematurely it has catastrophic consequences for them

Yet the poachers pose a simply awful danger. Canney says, “Following the fall of Ghadafi, Tuareg mercenaries returned to Mali armed to the teeth and the simmering rebellion ignited. Elephant tusks are said to represent $4000 in an economy where most of the 200,000 inhabitants earn less than a dollar a day.” 

The Tuareg are not the only threat. The most severe elephant massacre took place just last year, when 9 elephants were killed by heavily camouflaged poachers on motorbikes. They were believed to be part of trans-Saharan international trafficking networks with links to Algeria. Mali
The elephants have developed one of the most unusual migration routes to cope with an exceptionally harsh environment, roaming through a vast area of around 32,000 km squared

“Yet the inhabitants of the Gourma have deep-seated respect for elephants.” She explains that most of the herders and farmers, some of them nomadic, are non-denominational Muslims who when asked about the elephants evoke the concept of Baraka, which values what is unique in the spirit of each and every species. 

In other words, ordinary Malians understand that the presence of elephants requires, and is therefore symbolic of, a diverse, productive and resilient ecosystem, that is the foundation of human prosperity. It also requires relative political stability. To the extent that those elements are missing – especially the last – the fate of the elephants hangs right in the balance in 2016.  

Thankfully, there is a longer horizon, and the MEP is well established. Back in 2003, when Canney first became involved and the Project was newly established, the work focused on understanding the elephant population and its migration paths. Once established, it became easier to identify migration pinch-points that were the priority areas for action. Then, the local populations could be approached.  

It’s not for nothing that Canney’s DPhil was about using satellite mapping of vegetation in Tanzania to understand human impact on the environment and wildlife. In these arid lands access to water/water management is key. Where the water dries up, there is increased competition over a dwindling resource that can place humans in direct conflict with elephants. At one pinch-point at Lake Banzena, which dried prematurely in 2009, the Project was able to help the local population move to an area of good pasture and clean water by sinking bore holes, helping them coordinate fair use access, and thereby take pressure away from the elephants. In other locations they have defended key elephant-forest from the charcoalers, diverting it to other more lucrative ends for the local populations and preserving a natural source of cover for the elephants.

the Republic of Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa.
The arid landscape in Mali, a land-locked country in the heart of west Africa

Canney is hugely concerned about government corruption and general lawlessness in Mali, but still hopeful about grassroots communities who are the greatest resource of all in the fight against illegal poaching and habitat destruction. 

The elephants of Mali are the most northerly wild elephant population in the world, she explains. Numbering about 400-450, they represent an estimated 12% of the total West African elephant population. They are extraordinary for the length of their annual migration, which exceeds 600kms. Human encroachment is making it even longer, as herds seek safety and food in order to calve their young. 

She never originally envisaged working in Mali, but the opportunity knocked hard at her door via a request for help from fellow Oxonian and Oxford Zoology legend Iain Douglas Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. 

Punch above your weight - Mali elephant conservation: Dr. Susan Canney at TEDxVailWomen

Dr Canney's talk on her strategy to transform a desperate situation for Mali's elephant population 

Canney is not a tutorial fellow. Like many researchers in the Zoology department, she does some teaching but is not a formal post-holder. Rather, her own livelihood rests on uncertain grants and time limited projects – she spends a lot of time applying for support for the Project.

If the world has recently woken to David MacDonald’s WildCRU – of Cecil the Lion fame  – we should not forget the efforts of Canney, nor the extraordinary track record of Oxford’s Zoology Department. Not only has it produced Douglas-Hamilton, but part-Kenyan-based department chair Fritz Vollrath. They in turn have nurtured a new generation of researchers, of whom Canney is one. By fighting sometimes desperate battles to save endangered species, they have found themselves devising innovative solutions to all too human problems of development and land use. 

Images: Richard Lofthouse, Shutterstock, Carlton Ward

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By Ian Giles

You say this is "evidence based" research. How do you address the discrepancy in "fair market value" for research and the funds donated to WildCRU by hunting organizations like Dallas Safari Club?

By Belinda Stewart-Cox

You have the wrong picture associated with the summary page of this article. You have duplicated the b/w engraving used lower down. Sue Canney is much better looking and so are the elephants she is trying to protect!