Every species has a right to exist and contributes something to the ecosystem that is unique to it, a notion that was described to me as being encapsulated in the word baraka or blessing.
Sometimes in conservation we have been reticent to ask local people what they think and feel about wildlife in case they are less than enthusiastic.
In reality what they usually don't want is to have their livelihoods diminished and their options reduced, particularly when the wildlife is perceived to benefit the affluent.
Why do the local people protect the elephants? This was the first question registered after my recent TEDx talk telling the story of how a few people can make a big difference, and it is a vital question.
Nature and wildlife have multiple values. , some of which can have a monetary figure attached to them (if they are readily marketable goods such as food and construction materials), and some of which can't. In trying to determine the value of nature we often concentrate on just one or a few of these, and in the process miss the combined value.
Although I am used to describing why the people conserve the elephants in particular contexts, I had never before drawn all the reasons together in one place.
Bringing diverse clans together to control resources
In return for protecting the elephant migration route and its habitats, the project helps the community to overcome their problems and challenges.
These might vary in detail from place to place according to local circumstances and have included access to clean water, procuring grain, youth employment, and conflict management; but all involve preventing and reversing ecosystem degradation.
Bringing diverse clans and ethnicities together to protect water, pasture, forests, wildlife and wild foods and using these resources sustainably means that more are available over a greater area, as for example in protecting pasture against fire.
Most importantly, it also gives them control over the land and its resources, empowering them to prevent others (particularly commercial interests from towns hundreds of kilometres away) from over-exploitation and causing environmental degradation.
Protecting pastures, ecosystems, and elephants
They can also prevent incomers from clearing forest for cultivation, and thereby protect a source of wild foods, fuel, game, and services such as water retention and soil stabilisation as well as key elephant habitat.
They can receive revenue from charging by the head for livestock belonging to the large 'prestige' herds coming from distant towns to access water.
These belong to wealthy urban dwellers who send them into remoter areas to find pasture as none remains close to densely populated centres. We discovered that over 96% of the cattle using Lake Banzena in 2009 belonged to such herds.
These activities provide an occupation for the young men that has status within the community, an idea that might be replicated wherever there is environmental degradation.
Elephants are special
Do they need elephants to do this? Maybe not, but the local people know that elephants attract the attention of the wider community - national and international - and are proud of that. As they say, "if the elephants disappear, our area will no longer be special".
They view elephants as an indicator of a healthy ecosystem and they know that their livelihoods depend on a healthy ecosystem. They also know from direct experience that elephants are important as seed dispersers and in forest regeneration.
Elephants knock down otherwise inaccessible fruits and seeds from high branches that are gathered by the women for food and sometimes sale. Fruits and leaves are also eaten by livestock. Dung is valued to help conjunctivitis, a widespread problem in these environments.
They are in awe of witnessing elephants' social interactions and expression of a range of emotions, their joy when groups reunite, their apparent care for each other and particularly for their young.
They have reported seeing elephants covering their dead with soil and branches and standing vigil for several days. They tell of elephants constructing a causeway of wood and branches to help rescue another elephant stuck in mud.
Emergent value: a benefit greater than the sum of its parts
They also feel that every species has a right to exist and that it contributes something to the ecosystem that is unique to it, a notion that was described to me as being encapsulated in the word baraka or blessing.
Each species has its own baraka, and if a species is lost, the ecosystem is irretrievably diminished, and poorer in its ability to sustain life.
Once peace is restored there is the additional possibility of revenue from tourism, as pre-conflict they have witnessed tourists paying to be guided to see the elephants.
Some of these reasons may seem fragile when considered on their own, but together these 'elephant plus points' combine to produce an overall benefit that is greater than the sum of the parts.
While we can attempt to place a monetary value on some aspects of this benefit, it is impossible to do so with all aspects and particularly with the 'emergent' value, something that needs to be acknowledged in attempts to analyse the economics of the ivory trade as well as conservation and development interventions in elephant areas.
Dr Susan Canney is a Research Associate at the University of Oxford's Department of Zoology and a Member of the Conservation and Science Committee of the Sahara Conservation Fund. Her research interests are centred on conservation biology and the use of spatial techniques for:
- Understanding human impact on (and interaction with) ecosystems and wildlife;
- Resolving human-wildlife conflict;
- Planning and implementation of conservation strategy and management;
- Participatory approaches to conservation management.
This article was originally published by the Wild Foundation as an update of the Mali Elephant Project.
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All photos: Carlton Ward Jr. / www.carltonward.com.