Changing Planet

Help Needed to Buy Water for Dying Elephants


Photo courtesy Save the Elephants

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.

The future of a rare herd of desert elephants in Mali is under threat from one of the worst droughts in living memory, according to Save the Elephants, a conservation organization based in Kenya.

Water levels are extremely low in the African desert country’s Gourma region due to uneven rainfall in 2008. The most important lake, Banzena, is the lowest it has been since 1983 when it dried completely.

Adult elephants go on their knees to stretch for water deep under the sand. Baby elephants who can’t reach the water are dying of thirst.

“Urgent action is now needed to secure water for the elephants until the rains commence as predicted in early June,” Save the Elephants said in a news statement. “Fortunately, two pumps already exist at Banzena for pumping water and can be used for helping the elephants.

“Save the Elephants, in partnership with the WILD Foundation and the Mali government, is appealing for funds for diesel necessary for their operation.”

save the elephants logo.png

 Donations to help buy pump fuel can be made on the Save the Elephants Web site.


The situation is equally dire for the Touareg and Pheul herdsmen who rely on Lake Banzena for their cattle and many cows are now dying each day from lack of water and the soaring temperatures which reach 50 degrees Celsius in the shade, says Jake Wall, a Save the Elephants researcher who returned recently from a visit to the area.

“The stench of rotting corpses fills the air and what little water remains is putrid and undrinkable by all standards. The normal peaceful coexistence between the elephants and herdsmen is starting to break down and giving way to conflict over access to water.”

Even if help comes, it is not certain whether the water quantity will be sufficient and close monitoring of the situation is needed, Save the Elephants said.


Photo courtesy Save the Elephants

“The 350 to 450 elephants of Gourma, the northernmost herds still alive in Africa, are being forced to trek ever-longer distances within the Sahel on the fringes of the Sahara to find scarce water.

“Juveniles are likely to be among the worst affected, as–unlike the bigger bulls–their trunks are not long enough to reach deep into remaining wells.

“Six elephants have already been found dead. Four others, including three calves, were recently extracted from a shallow well into which they had fallen when searching for water. Only the largest survived.”

Elephants On Their Knees

At a dry lake bed 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the east of Banzena, six bull elephants are surviving by getting on their knees and reaching with their trunks for water that is 10 feet (3 meters) beneath ground level and through a hole dug by the Touareg.

Younger elephants who are not as big or as skilled cannot possibly reach these to hard-to-get-at water points, Save the Elephants said in its statement. “The long distances, high temperatures and weakened condition will also take a heavy toll on the younger elephants.”

The desert elephants of Mali live in the Gourma district southeast of Timbuktu. They have adapted to survive in the harsh conditions of the Sahel by migrating long distances in search of water and food but live on the margin of what is ecologically viable.

 View a larger file of this interactive map.

The ancient elephant migration routes in Mali, Africa, were tracked by satellite by Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Read the story that goes with this map.

Map by NGS

Save the Elephants and the WILD Foundation have been monitoring these last rare desert elephants in Mali in collaboration with the Malian Environment Ministry directorate for conservation–Direction Nationale de la Conservation de la Nature (DNCN).

“This unique herd of elephants is now in a desperate situation due to a drastic shortage of water, and we are launching an emergency appeal to save them,” Save the Elephants said.

Photo courtesy Save the Elephants

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
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