Mali’s Desert Elephants on Edge of Annihilation
For the law enforcement side of operations, the men studied crime scene investigation. The rangers went through combat drills, and the United Nations offered human rights courses. For extra support, the brigade hired Mitch and Bobby, two chocolate-colored spaniels who have been trained to sniff out ivory during search missions.
Once in the field, community engagement is critical to successful anti-poaching operations, Mr. Young said. Building supportive relationships with the local populations helps the brigade stay abreast of what is happening in the region, which in turn helps the force protect the elephants and the community.
“Without the community there is no solution,” Mr. Young said.
Despite the presence of army troops, the brigade does not take a militarized approach to its anti-poaching efforts. “It is a law enforcement operation,” Mr. Young said. “We are not mercenaries.”
But in the Gourma, risks to the brigade are constant, and missions have turned deadly. In August, the brigade’s radio operator was killed when part of the team responded to protect a United Nations camp in Douentza, Mali, from a raid by armed men that also claimed the life of a peacekeeper, according to officials.
In September, an ambush by unknown assailants who used a roadside bomb and gunfire to attack the brigade’s convoy injured three.
On a routine operation last month, a reporter joined the brigade as it drove to a remote village to follow up on a tip that two elephants had been killed.
The convoy bounced over a road riddled with potholes, past remains of burned-out trucks, through a sandstorm and rain, and then into fields of sucking mud and soft dunes.
After arriving in the village, representatives from the brigade met with local leaders to share information about elephants, while the brigade’s men socialized with the villagers and bought chickens for later meals.
No one had heard anything about any elephant deaths, and the tip was dismissed.
While the brigade has successfully prevented poaching since February, officials worry ivory traffickers are merely 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 will not be easy. The ivory trafficking networks are vast and complex, extending far beyond Mali’s borders.
Since 1989, 81 ivory seizures in 15 countries were either linked to Mali as an exporting country or to Malian nationals who were arrested in connection to the crimes, said Tom Milliken, the elephant and rhinoceros program leader for Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network.