Elephants Are Being Defended By Trained, Armed Brigades In West Africa

"We risk losing so much more than these incredible animals."

Few threats are greater for Africa's elephants than the ivory poachers who are killing them off en masse. But over the last few years, elephants have found a new protector: armed brigades trained to stop those poachers.

This week, The New York Times reported on an anti-poaching brigade in Mali that patrols Gourma, an area the publication says is about as big as Switzerland. Despite a fluctuating security situation with Al Qaeda and other extremist groups frequently in the region, the brigade has seemingly controlled the poaching epidemic; and they are not alone in their efforts.



Rob Brandford, the executive director of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), told A Plus in an email that Mali's situation is "not an isolated case" and the DSWT alone operates ten anti-poaching teams across Kenya. 

Protecting those elephants is critically important. Elephants are a keystone species, which means they play a critical role in the survival of their environment despite not being abundant in numbers. Elephants, for example, carry seeds through their dung that only germinate once they pass through an elephant's gut. Those seeds travel far distances with elephants, Brandford explained, helping to create new forests. Elephants also create pathways that other animals use by walking through forests or tall grass, their footprints are used as water troughs for smaller animals and they can be an endless source of income for communities that rely on tourism. 

"There are a myriad of reasons for protecting elephants not least because if we lose elephants, through poaching or human-wildlife conflict (which in places, is a bigger threat to their survival), we risk losing so much more than these incredible animals," Brandford said. "Protecting elephants therefore means safeguarding the future of whole ecosystems, communities and species."

At the worst of the poaching crisis, 100,000 elephants across Africa were killed in just three years. When you consider the highest estimates of living wild elephants amount to about 700,000, according to the Defenders of Wildlife, those numbers are disturbing. Brandford says even that number is unusually high, and noted that the real number — according to Great Elephant Census — is probably more like 415,000 elephants in all of Africa. National Geographic reported that one in 12 elephants were killed by poachers in 2011 alone. Over the course of a decade, the elephant population in Central Africa decreased by 64 percent. Many are hunted for their valuable ivory tusks, so multi-pronged efforts to reduce poaching often include an effort to reduce demand of ivory in the countries that buy it. 

In West Africa, where Mali is located, the issue is still worse than in other parts of the continent. Another 163 elephants were killed in the region since 2012, leaving approximately 300 elephants in all of Mali. The anti-poaching brigades there now move along the elephants' migratory route to keep them safe, though they themselves are sometimes in danger. In August, The New York Times reported, one of the brigade's radio operators was killed when the brigade "responded to protect a United Nations camp in Douentza, Mali, from a raid by armed men."

A month later, an ambush with a roadside bomb and gunfire injured three members of the brigade's moving convoy. 

But despite that, the brigade has been successful: not a single elephant has been killed in the Gourma in the last nine months. And in eastern Africa, Brandford said, the numbers of elephants killed by poachers is back to pre-2008 levels, before the ivory poaching crisis really took off.

"Like the Brigade in Mali, they have undergone a special training program which includes training on identifying illegal activity, how to apprehend poachers and more," Brandford said. "In Tsavo where we primarily work, this has led to a reduction of poaching, down more than 50%, showing how effective it is."

Fortunately, you don't have to put yourself in harm's way to help.

"There are so many ways for people to help," Brandford said. "One of the most impactful and immediate is to bring an elephant into their lives or to gift an orphan elephant to a loved one."

You can actually "adopt" an elephant through the DSWT, for a small donation. Foster parents can even visit those elephants in Kenya if they arrive before they are reintegrated into the wild. 

"That donation goes an enormous way in enabling us to rescue orphans in need and to provide them with a human-elephant family as they grow," Brandford said.

To learn more, you can check out DSWT's website. For more information on protecting endangered elephants, you can visit the International Fund For Animal Welfare.

Cover photo: DSWT

UPDATE: A previous version of this article noted that, according to the highest estimates, there were approximately 700,000 living wild elephants. It has been updated to include Rob Brandford's dispute of that number. 

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