The Mali Elephant Project: Tellem’s story [West Africa]

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By Tellem

The author has been involved in the WILD Foundation’s Mali Elephant Project. The pseudonym of “Tellem” is used for the protection of their personal identity. 

Many people believe that I am of the Dogon people of Western Africa, but in fact, I am Tellem. At least according to the colonists. Years ago, when they first came to our lands they asked us who we were. We told them, “We are from here,” which in their ears made the sound “te-lem.” And that is how we got our name, The People from Here.

As one of the people from here, I am especially concerned with the prevailing conditions of our namesake, this land that is our home and the home to one of two remaining herds of desert elephants and the last herd in northern Africa. For decades the conditions on the land grew worse and worse until it was very difficult for both people and elephants.

African elephants in Mali (cropped from a photo by Carlton Ward Jr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

You see, colonialism didn’t just result in new names, it also resulted in new ways of doing things which made many of us, as well as members from some of the other ethnic groups who live here too, forget the old ways of living well on the land. In fact, some of us even stopped living in rural areas entirely and started living in cities instead.

But one thing that never changes is the human desire for status and wealth, and even in cities there is no better measure of status nor more traditional form of income than a large herd of cattle.

Those who had moved away from the land stayed in the cities but brought their herds back to the countryside. In a time of drought, climate change, and a growing population, the land could not support so many cattle and wildlife, especially the elephants. The cattle grazed on the sparse forage and drank the water until there were few lakes left. The cattle that belonged to us, those who still lived in the countryside, grew weak and skinny, to say nothing of the elephants! Their numbers dwindled and continue to do so.

The people believe that the elephants confer a blessing on the land; should they disappear altogether it would indicate that we too must leave. But those who remain here do not want to leave, especially to live in a city. This land is the source of our sovereignty; this land is the essence of our identity.

So we sought a solution that was built on the old and that also accommodates new realities. With the help of the Mali Elephant Project we started working at a local scale in one area to develop a method that works. By convening the elders of multiple ethnic groups, we grew our solutions out of the soil of the area so that the people believe in the actions they must collectively take.

Together, through development of a common understanding of the problems we all shared, we were able to come to a consensus about how to manage the land for the benefit of those that are here, elephants and people alike. The elders mobilized the youth, 1700 of them now (over 80 are women), traversing their land to ensure that it is managed well; that human activity respects natural limits and restores ecosystem health; and that there is space for humans and elephants to thrive together, although much work remains to expand and defend this space to sustainable levels.

Since we have done this, we have noticed that gazelles and bustards have increased in number, and bare soil has been reclaimed. The more we can replicate this in many areas, uniting communities across the landscape, the more we can encourage others to do the same thing.

Some might call this bringing order and the rule of law to “the commons” (land held by communities in common). Others might call it rewilding because the acacia forests are healthy again, and with the new growth comes new forage for the elephants and fruits for our women.

Whatever we call it, is was foresight and decisions based on the knowledge of our lands that has driven the solutions that have helped restore the water and forage for our cattle and for the elephants. The Mali Elephant Project has helped bring us together to create agreements that we can all respect.

Whatever people choose to call it, they are the gifts of lessons I learned from my father, a powerful and respected chief. My father implemented many wise practices to nurture the land. Our village feels like a paradise with lots of mature trees and productive fields with livestock in good condition. It is a stark contrast to villages, which do not regulate their resource use and are degraded dustbowls by comparison.

In 2017, our work was recognized by the United Nations. We were given the Equator Prize for demonstrating that people and nature can thrive together.

But the job isn’t done. Our model is working, but in order for it to spread across the entirety of the elephant range we need more support, even as the challenges continue to mount. Now we face new threats in the form of insurgents who have swept in from Algeria and beyond. The threat of violence overshadows our work and the local communities.

It seems that we are destined to forever play host to outsiders who believe they are more entitled to the land than we ourselves are. Still, we continue to do what we can. Because we know that this land is ours to protect. We know that because we are from this land we are also responsible for it.

Location of Mali