Mali Elephant Project


The Mali Elephant Project (MEP) works in the Gourma region of Mali to protect an iconic “desert elephant” population, one of the last remaining elephant populations in West Africa. The 300+ elephants roam a vast Sahelian landscape of >40,000 km2, which they share with approx. 500,000 people (pastoralists, agropastoralists and subsistence farmers for the majority).

Threats & Challenges

Both elephants and people depend on natural resources for their survival. However, increasing human pressure is driving natural habitat loss and degradation, exacerbating competition for natural resources (between people, as well as people and elephants), and reducing the resilience of the ecosystem to cope with environmental and social change. As well as endangering the survival of elephants, this is further impoverishing local livelihoods, in a context of extreme poverty and youth unemployment. An armed jihadist insurgency is also exacerbating social tensions, driving recruitment by armed groups, while rendering the area highly insecure.

The MEP’s Approach

The project supports local communities of the elephant range in the development of “elephant-centred” community-led natural resource management systems that protect and restore natural habitat, make space for elephants while supporting local livelihoods.

The MEP helps local communities create governance structures to manage natural resources, enabled by national legislation, through facilitating dialogue between stakeholders, and the development of consensual, transparent and local solutions founded on the protection and restoration of natural habitat (pastures, forests, water) by local communities, supported by commune (county) authorities.

Project Impact

The resultant environmental governance systems help protect habitat and elephants; restore over-exploited, degraded ecosystems; improve local livelihoods; provide respected occupations for youths, helping to prevent urban migration and recruitment by armed groups; provide income-generating opportunities for women; and reinforce social cohesion through dialogue and collaboration. The result is a more resilient social and ecological system.

The project’s integrated approach has meant that while the initial focus was on elephant conservation, it delivers multiple benefits, helping to address several problems, and contributes to several SDGs. Communities feel empowered to improve their well-being through taking responsibility for the management of the natural resources that are the basis of their livelihoods, while the tangible benefits they perceive helps build support for elephant conservation.

Additional resources


Canney, S.M. (2019). The Mali Elephant Project: protecting elephants amidst conflict and poverty. Int. Zoo Yb., 53: 174-188. doi:10.1111/izy.12236
Canney S. (2020). Action research creates a shared future for elephants and humans. Research OUTREACH (113). Available at:
Canney, S.M. (2021). Making Space for Nature: Elephant Conservation in Mali as a Case Study in Sustainability, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 63:2, 4-15, DOI: 10.1080/00139157.2021.1871292