Nature recovery through community-owned natural resource management: a path to ecological and social resilience

Carlton Ward Jr
Published: 10 August 2021
Last edited: 18 April 2023
remove_red_eye 3681 Views


The Mali Elephant Project applies an integrated, landscape-level approach to the complex problem of human wildlife coexistence across 42,000km2. Based on the multiple values that local actors associate with the presence of elephants, the project works simultaneously at multiple levels, using a participatory approach with stakeholders to co-create solutions that protect one of the last remaining elephant populations in West Africa. Human-induced habitat loss, environmental degradation, conflict and poaching threaten both the elephants and local livelihoods. To combat these, the project supports the local communities of the elephant range in the establishment of community-centred natural resource management systems that protect natural habitat and reverse environmental degradation. A healthier environment supports local livelihoods, provide occupations for at-risk youth and revenue-generation opportunities, particularly for women. These systems also build social cohesion and reinforce local support for elephant conservation.


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
Species Conservation and One Health Interventions
Species Status Assessment
Species Conservation Planning
One Health
Food systems
Good governance of landscapes
Wildlife trade and human-wildlife conflicts
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 food security
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Poor governance and participation
Social conflict and civil unrest
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
Show on Protected Planet


  • 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 “complexity” perspective which sees the problem as emerging from the relationships of its wider context between people and between people and nature. Guided by a vision of peaceful human-elephant coexistence, it finds ways to reinforce positive aspects and resolve negative relationships by careful action. It requires an open mind to respect the perspectives of all stakeholders; fill knowledge gaps; 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, further “enabled” by new legislation (e.g. the new Gourma Reserve). Ongoing dialogue and learning between stakeholders is central. The ripple effects go beyond pure elephant conservation, becoming a driving force for improved ecological and social resilience. Taking a wide-lens view of the problem and focusing on the relationships within the social and ecological ecosystem provides more opportunities for creative solutions, as for example, by providing an occupation for at-risk youth in natural resource protection and land restoration.


The project’s integrated, landscape approach has meant that while the initial focus was on elephant conservation, the resulting method has delivered multiple outcomes that contribute 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 local subsistence livelihoods. This gives them ownership.

“If elephants disappear it means the environment is no longer good for us.”

This has resulted in environmental restoration and regeneration, healthy and viable habitats for elephants and other wildlife.

Other benefits include improved livelihoods, local governance (at commune and village level), social cohesion, occupations for youth, opportunities for women; and a way to resolve human-elephant conflict.

All these build environmental and social resilience, reinforcing support for elephant conservation among local communities and commune administrations, and these local conventions become an integral part of the social and economic development plans of the 16 relevant communes.

Working with Government has resulted in an elephant management plan; the creation of a new protected area covering the 42,000km2 elephant range, including enforcement mechanisms; and the creation of Mali’s first anti-poaching unit which, supported by community trust and support, prevented the elephants’ extermination.


Carlton Ward Jr

When the MEP began in 2003 increasing human pressure had resulted in 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, unarmed community ecoguards, selected by each community to patrol and enforce community agreements, as well as conduct resource protection, restoration activities, and raise local awareness.

Community rules protected their resources (water, pasture, forests, wildlife) from overuse and declared protected forests and pasture reserves, protected with firebreaks built by the 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.

Community rules included the sharing of benefits, thus reinforcing local support for elephant conservation. As elephant poaching appeared with the advent of conflict and lawlessness community ecoguards monitored elephants, poaching and HEC. When poaching escalated in 2015, they asked for government anti-poaching support. The MEP worked with the government to create an anti-poaching unit for the Gourma; and to create a new protected area over the elephant range using a biosphere reserve model.

Contributed by

wildmep_38764's picture

Susan Canney WILD Foundation

Other contributors

WILD Foundation - Mali
WILD Foundation