In 2012, Mali's elephants came under attack for the first time. After the Tuareg rebel uprising and coup, their northern migration paths were no longer on land controlled by the government. The instability meant the area was awash with guns. The rebels needed money, and had begun to turn to poaching for ivory, despite the elephants' very small tusks.
The elephants had already been suffering for some time: forests and bushland were being cleared, and they had to compete with enormous herds of cattle for their water supply. But hearts at the Mali Elephant Project, which had been working hard to prevent this, sank when war broke out. Gourma elephants trek for 300 miles a year in search of food and water — the most unusual migration pattern of any elephants. There are only 550 elephants in Mali, but they constitute 12 per cent of the world's West African elephant population. It seemed that these could not survive the total insecurity their habitat had been thrown into. Not knowing what to do, the project's co-ordinator, Dr. Susan Canney, said that that was when they turned to local people for help.
Young, unemployed men were being persuaded to join the jihadis, with generous salaries of $30-$50 per day — a fortune in northern Mali. So the Mali Elephant Project started its own recruitment drive: it wanted a network of young people to look out for the elephants, and report killings or anything suspicious. It proved an incredible success. The project could only pay them in food for looking out for the elephants and reporting their killers — far less than the jihadis were offering. However, "Not one of them joined the jihadis. They said the project work was more noble - it gave them status in their communities.