Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM): a path to ecological and social resilience

Carlton Ward Jr
Published: 10 August 2021
Last edited: 03 December 2021
remove_red_eye 1413 Views


The Mali Elephant Project (MEP) works to protect one of the last remaining elephant populations in West Africa, threatened by human-induced habitat loss, environmental degradation, conflict and poaching. The project applies an integrated approach to a complex situation, working simultaneously at different levels to tackle these interrelated problems.

It supports local communities of the elephant range in the establishment of “elephant-centred” community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) systems that protect natural habitat, reverse environmental degradation, as well as supporting local livelihoods, providing occupations for at-risk youth and revenue-generation opportunities for whole communities (incl. women), building social cohesion and reinforcing local support for elephant conservation. This bottom-up approach is complemented by a top-down approach, which includes working with the Government of Mali to reinforce national legislation, planning and capacity around elephant conservation to support local initiatives.


West and Central Africa
Scale of implementation
Desert ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
Grassland ecosystems
Hot desert
Pool, lake, pond
Rangeland / Pasture
Tropical grassland, savanna, shrubland
Access and benefit sharing
Connectivity / transboundary conservation
Ecosystem services
Erosion prevention
Fire management
Food security
Habitat fragmentation and degradation
Health and human wellbeing
Indigenous people
Land management
Legal & policy frameworks
Local actors
Peace and human security
Poaching and environmental crime
Protected and conserved areas governance
Protected and conserved areas management planning
Science and research
Species management
Sustainable livelihoods
Terrestrial spatial planning
Traditional knowledge
Erratic rainfall
Extreme heat
Land and Forest degradation
Loss of Biodiversity
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Ecosystem loss
Unsustainable harvesting incl. Overfishing
Lack of alternative income opportunities
Physical resource extraction
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Poor governance and participation
Social conflict and civil unrest
Lack of food security
Unemployment / poverty
Sustainable development goals
SDG 1 – No poverty
SDG 2 – Zero hunger
SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
SDG 5 – Gender equality
SDG 6 – Clean water and sanitation
SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 12 – Responsible consumption and production
SDG 13 – Climate action
SDG 15 – Life on land
SDG 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions
SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated
Target 3: Incentives reformed
Target 4: Sustainable production and consumption
Target 5: Habitat loss halved or reduced
Target 10: Ecosystems vulnerable to climate change
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction
Target 14: Ecosystem services
Target 15: Ecosystem restoration and resilience
Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans
Target 18: Traditional knowledge
Sendai Framework
Target 2: Reduce the number of affected people globally by 2030
(I)NDC Submission


Douentza, Mopti Region, Mali


  • Lawlessness, conflict and insurgency by extremist groups
  • Communities impotent to prevent habitat loss and ecosystem degradation resulting in impoverished subsistence livelihoods
  • Over-exploitation by burgeoning cattle herds and other commercial interests from distant urban centres
  • Social tensions between clans and ethnicities over access to natural resources resulting in no collectively respected management systems
  • Elephant poaching as the project area lies astride major international trafficking routes
  • Unregulated hunting leading to the disappearance of many wildlife species
  • Increasing human-elephant conflicts as elephants are displaced from their refuges by armed groups occupying dense thickets surrounding waterholes, coupled with the impacts of artisanal gold-mining
  • Youth unemployment and vulnerability to recruitment by armed groups
  • Lack of economic/social empowerment of youths and women
  • Lack of Government capacity with regard to elephant protection and protected area management


The main beneficiaries are the local communities of the Gourma and the government of Mali. As a national and international heritage, the conservation of the iconic Gourma elephants also benefits the people of Mali, West Africa and the world.

How do the building blocks interact?

All the building blocks are intimately linked and derive from the first building block, the project’s “complex-systems” approach. This directly guides both WHAT the project does and HOW the project does it. The essence is to see the problem as part of a wider social-ecological system and seek to shift the dynamics (and outcome) of that system by careful action. It is to adopt an open mind; respect the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders; fill knowledge gaps to better understand the complexity; identify and network “assets” and key intervention points for action. It involves facilitating the co-creation of a common perspective among stakeholders, followed by transparent and just solutions at grassroots level, which then inform further enabling legislation (e.g. the new Gourma Reserve). Ongoing dialogue between stakeholders is central. The ripple effects of this synergistic, multi-sector approach go beyond pure elephant conservation, becoming a driving force for peace and social resilience. Taking a wide-lens view of the problem and recognising the multiplicity of forces at play provides more opportunities for creative trade-offs, as for example, by providing an occupation for at-risk youth in natural resource protection and land restoration.


The project’s integrated approach has meant that while the initial focus was on elephant conservation, it has delivered multiple benefits, improved several problems and contributed to several SDGs. The “elephant-centred” CBNRM systems are based on local perceptions of value and encourage different communities, clans and ethnicities to come together and devise transparent and equitable solutions that address these problems by way of consensus.

Communities feel empowered to improve their well-being through taking responsibility for the management of the natural resources that are the basis of local subsistence livelihoods. Other tangible benefits include improved local governance (at commune and village level), social cohesion and peace, opportunities for women and youth, environmental restoration and regeneration, healthy and viable habitats for elephants and other wildlife. All these build environmental and social resilience, reinforcing support for elephant conservation among local communities, and these systems become an integral part of the commune's social and economic development plans.

Working with Government has resulted in an elephant management plan, the creation of a new protected area covering the elephant range, and the creation of Mali’s first anti-poaching unit which, supported by community trust and support, prevented the elephants’ extermination when poaching suddenly skyrocketed in 2015.


Carlton Ward Jr

When the MEP began in 2003 increasing human pressure had resulted in desertification, habitat loss and degradation, reduced environmental and social resilience and impoverished livelihoods that exacerbated social and human-elephant conflicts.

Attitude surveys revealed that local people did not want elephants to disappear: they understood that elephants were a sign of a healthy ecosystem and that human activities must respect environmental limits. Further studies and consultations revealed more about the underlying drivers: communities’ problems, value systems and relationship with elephants. Anarchic natural resource use was at the core and individual groups were unable to act against it. It meant that Mali’s decentralisation legislation was an appropriate tool to help build consensus among the diverse local groups on resource management systems that enabled the restoration and sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of people and elephants.

These “elephant-centred” CBNRM systems involved creating community structures: committees of elders supported by young community ecoguards, selected by each community to patrol and enforce community agreements, as well as conduct resource protection and restoration activities.

Community rules protected their resources (water, pasture, forests, wildlife) from overuse and declared protected forests and pasture reserves, protected with firebreaks built by the teams of ecoguards. That year, as the dry season advanced and fires broke out, their pasture survived. They had plenty of pasture for their livestock at the end of the dry season and could sell hay and grazing access at a good price to others. Their cattle were worth 50% more at market, had more young and less disease. The women were able to establish local enterprises based on the availability of natural resources, e.g. the sale of hay, forage and forest products such as Gum Arabic. These activities also promoted harmony within the community and helped heal tensions between ethnicities.

Benefits were shared, reinforcing local support for elephant conservation. As elephant poaching took off with the advent of conflict and lawlessness, community ecoguards monitored elephants, reporting on poaching, HEC and raising awareness. When poaching escalated in 2015, community networks were no longer able to contain poaching on their own and asked for armed support. The MEP worked with the government to create an anti-poaching unit capable of containing poaching in the Gourma.

Contributed by

wildmep_38764's picture

Susan Canney WILD Foundation

Other contributors

WILD Foundation - Mali
WILD Foundation