© STE – Iain Douglas-Hamilton meets passing Tuareg nomads in the Gourma desert
Back in about 2001, I travelled to the Gourma Desert in Mali to join a Save the Elephants team removing radio-collars from a handful of elephants darted two years previously. The collars had been transmitting crucial data on elephant movement between Mali and Burkina Faso. The data showed that the elephants were covering a range of 38,000 kmsq, which lead to the discovery that no other elephant population in Africa has a migration that encompasses such a large area. Now the collar batteries were running out and the transmitters had to be recovered. It was a brutally hard operation but successful.
© STE – Saba & El Mehdi, the wonderful Tuareg representative of the Min. des Eaux et Forets
The Gourma is truly the back of beyond – south of the Sahara, almost level with Timbuktu – it is exceedingly arid and remote. At midday, temperatures rise to 51°C in the shade, and beyond the few Tuareg herders that gather around the desert oases to browse their livestock on desiccated trees, there’s nothing else beside these extraordinary desert elephants. The only reason they survive in such extreme conditions is because of their intelligence and their ability to walk long distances between food and water.
© STE – Desert elephants at Lake Banzena
About a year after our de-collaring mission, a researcher from Oxford, Susan Canney, took over the elephant study. Sadly, recent political turmoil and the incursion of Al Qaeda linked militants into the area forced her out of the field, and, for the first time in decades, these most northern of Africa’s elephants are once again plagued by the horrors of ivory poaching. Since only about 400 elephants remain in Mali, each loss impacts hard on the population.
Last week Susan and I had a chat about community sentiments towards elephants. But the most interesting part for me had nothing to do with elephants. It was her discovery that most of the livestock she’d assumed belonged to the Tuareg nomads, were actually “prestige herds” belonging to affluent businessmen in distant cities. More often than not, the Tuareg were simply hired hands who owned nothing themselves. I’d not heard the term prestige herding before, but it struck a deep chord with what I’ve seen in North Kenya.
© STE – A Tuareg encampment, by far the coolest way to live in the desert
So much of what we deal with in conservation is the “tragedy of the commons”. The disastrous over-exploitation of vulnerable species or habitats, often by desperate people scrabbling to put food into the mouths of their children, with no thought of long term sustainability or investment in the future. Sometimes, the people are not desperate at all, just ruthlessly greedy and uncaring. Unfortunately, this heedless rush for resources is often exacerbated by the breakdown of traditional values and lines of authority, and further damned by a lack of alternative systems of management.
It seems so tragic to me that nomadic pastoralists who’ve survived for centuries relying entirely on their livestock, no longer even own their livelihood. In the arid north of Kenya we see a similar situation to Mali. There’s far too much livestock, the landscape is increasingly degraded, and each year things get tougher for both humans and animals. According to Mike Harrison, the CEO of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) – now of our main conservation partners in Samburu District – a recent study by ICRAF has shown that 30% of the land in the northern rangelands is at or below the minimum organic carbon level necessary to support plant growth. A further 40% is severely degraded. It suggests that we’re witnessing desertification in fast forward, and most of this is thanks to excessive livestock.
Having lived and worked in Samburu on and off for the last 18 years, I have witnessed first hand the changing landscape. Just as in Mali, prestige herding is a big part of the problem. Rich politicians and traders bank-rolling on the meat business, hustle livestock deep into protected areas to graze illegally. The wild flora and fauna that attracts tourists to the area, bringing in critical funding to the County Governments, is starting to get severely depleted, in some cases even moving towards a threshold of no return.
If this abuse of the wild environment continues unchecked, then inevitably we will witness the slaying of the golden goose. It’s a massive vicious circle fuelled by frustration, desperation, poor management, greed and apathy. Nobody is doing anyone any favours by allowing it to continue, and, as always, the people who suffer the most are the poorest. So what to do?
We need a radical rethink of how we deal with all this stuff. There are already brave ventures afoot trying to combat it, initiated by the Northern Rangelands Trust and other NGOs, but we need more ideas, more energy, and even more hands on deck. Above all, we need to stop hiding our heads in the sand.
Nomads are just as open to the benefits of new ideas and technology as anyone else, and the advent of the cellphone is a good example of how quickly things can change. I’m convinced that the solution lies in offering alternative solutions, investments, livelihoods and better education to draw people away from the traditional practice of putting all their savings into livestock. It’s no longer viable environmentally, it fuels inter-tribal conflict, and it is destroying the one resource that really does bring income into the area – the wildlife.