Hundreds of pastoralists in the Mopti Region of central Mali are stuck between floodplains to the south and armed Islamists and rebels to the north. They are used to the hardship of successive droughts across the Sahel, but with little or no aid for their animals and severely limited access to pasture, many are becoming desperate as their livelihood and way of life becomes increasingly untenable.
"It's all over - it's finished," Ibrahim Koita, head of the Society of Social Welfare in Mopti Region, told IRIN in the capital, Bamako, where he is trying to pressure donors for more aid.
Pastoralists feel the government and aid agencies have sidelined them, giving them too few of the things they urgently need, like food and water for animals. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock earns Mali 41 percent of its annual budget.
After the poor harvest in 2011, most pastoralists had no fodder, making them totally reliant on pasture or increasingly unaffordable animal food - a 50kg bag of fodder has risen from 7,500 CFA (US$14) to 10,000 CFA ($18) - while livestock prices have plummeted as many desperate owners try to sell their animals before they starve to death.
"Not much is going at all to help animals," said Soulaylla Dicko, a chief of the Peulh ethnic group and leader of the pastoralist association in Thioki, Timbuktu. "We can't neglect pastoralists any longer - the government must do something."
Herds are shrinking year by year in some regions. Wealthy herders once had up to 500 animals at a time, now they are down to an average of 40, and one in four pastoralists now owns just three or four animals, said Marc Chapon, head of NGO Agronomes et Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (AVSF) - Agronomists and Veterinarians without Borders - in Mali. "It's nothing."
René Alphonse, president of Mali's National Federation of the Livestock Industry (FEBEVIM), estimates that 30 percent of the animals in the north have died. This loss comes on top of significant stock deaths in the drought of 2009-10.
Pastoralists from the northern regions of Adara, Azawad, Tiilenis and Gourma generally head to southern Mali, and into Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire or as far as Togo in search of pasture before the rainy season, from June to October. Once the rains arrive they move north to avoid the Inner Niger Delta flood zone, keeping away from agricultural land, to reach fresh pasture again.
Aid agencies say these movements started in January this year, six months earlier than usual, because of pasture shortages. But at the end of July pasture had yet to appear in the north.
The Islamist takeover of the north has left many pastoralists in Mali's inner delta region stranded: they cannot cross the Niger River to the south as their animals are too weak, and it is too dangerous for them to head north. Alphonse says around 75 percent of the herders in Mopti Region face this plight.
Many pastoralists are too scared to go north. Displaced pastoralists from Gao and Timbuktu told IRIN that the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine, Jihadist fighters who want to impose Sharia law, took their strongest animals, slit the throats of others, and killed herders who resisted.
"You give it [the animal] or they shoot you," said Ansigue Moussa Ouologuem, Mali head of the Association for the Promotion of Livestock in the Sahel and Savannah (APESS) in Mopti town. "MNLA, Ansar Dine, MUJAO [Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa] - they are all the same. Criminals."
Many animals are too weak to walk to the largest regional livestock market, 140km north of Timbuktu. "They'll die en route," said Chapon, or if they do get there, "they're so thin no one wants to buy them."
Animals that do not move out of the flood zone in the Inner Niger Delta also risk death, this time from floodwater. Each year AVSF pulls thousands of carcasses of animals too weak to escape, from the lakes and floodplains in Mali's delta region. In 2005-06 they removed 14,000 animals from Gounam near the river in Timbuktu, said Chapon, and are sending teams to the region to do the same this year.
As the animals weaken, so do their prices. A goat can sell for just 1,000 CFA ($1,80) in the Bourem region of Gao according to one donor, while Chapon said the highest price would be 12,000 CFA ($22), down from 25,000 ($46) in good times.
NGO Oxfam notes that terms of trade for bartering animals and cereals have at least doubled in northern zones - farmers must now exchange two goats, not one, for a 50kg bag of millet.
Tensions are also mounting between pastoralist groups, and between them and farmers, many told IRIN. APESS Mali head Ouologuem says around 48 people died near Diengourou in eastern Mopti region, most of them Peulhs, when they were attacked by Dogon farmers who said they were encroaching on their land. "Clashes occur all the time," he told IRIN.
Mali's Minister of Agriculture, Moussa Sidibé, told IRIN: "We need to find alternative routes for the pastoralists in the inner delta...Tensions will get worse in October [when the rainy season ends] if they haven't moved on." He said the ministry would soon host a forum between cattle-breeders and farmers in the region to discuss the problem.
Other pastoralists who fled conflict are stuck in neighbouring countries. Some 61,000 Malians fled west to Mauritania, 38,200 went east to Niger, and 56,000 headed south to Burkina Faso, according to the latest reports by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), leaving aid agencies struggling to shift their responses to cater to the animals' needs.
Other herdsmen have fled to towns and cities where they beg to get by. "Pastoralists are coming to towns like Ségou and Bamako and are begging, becoming bandits - this is what it's come to," Alphonse said.
Aid "too late"
Herders are desperate for food and water for their animals, but far too little animal fodder has been given in this year's drought response, said AVSF, APESS and FEBEVIM. France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the European Union have funded livestock responses, but with an emphasis on health over food.
"Partners have given money for vaccinations and anti-parasite medicines for animals, but very little food," said Chapon. "Now it's too late.... The needs were not well anticipated."
This is partly because it is very difficult to transport truck-loads of animal fodder to northern Mali in the current security conditions, said Maguette Ndiaye, head of emergency operations at FAO in Mali. The food agency's work, targeting thousands of the most vulnerable pastoralists in the north, has moved to Koulikoro in western Mali because of insecurity.
The Mali government has also said they would try to give fodder for animals, but "hardly anything's arrived," said Chapon. "I don't think they are very aware of the problem."
The government's capacity is weak. Agriculture Minister Moussa Sidibé told IRIN the government had set aside 1 million CFA ($1,800) for livestock, but the programme had "slowed down" because of the political crisis in the north. "We would like to subsidize animal feed, but we can't afford to," he told IRIN.
Agencies are doing what they can for livestock in the north.The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), AVSF- partly supported by FAO - and the International Foundation for Development Alternatives have vaccinated millions of animals.
ICRC has also deepened several water holes, distributed 500 metric tonnes of animal fodder, and is now undertaking destocking, an emergency coping activity that AVSF says is misunderstood and often neglected by donors.
Activities requiring medium-term support include post-crisis restocking, and more water points on transhumance routes, along which animals move from one seasonal pasture to another. FEBIVEM's Alphonse showed IRIN a photo of a cow lying dead in a field of grass. "This animal had pasture but no water," he said, outlining a cruel paradox affecting thousands of animals.
No funding for resilience
Donors are always much more focused on giving people food, but "people live off their animals... they will prioritize their animals' health over their family's food, as this will help them to keep going for longer, giving them milk and allowing them to buy cereals," Chapon pointed out.
"People like to talk about resilience - well this [giving animals help] is resilience in its purest form," he said.
This argument was put forward decades ago by academics, but has had little traction. To Tjoelker, head of programmes at the Dutch Embassy recognized that donors prefer feeding humans to almost all other forms of aid. "In emergency situations, aid agencies do focus first on people - that is the first need," she said.
But just as more help is needed, livestock project funding is being slashed as part of sweeping donor cuts to penalize Mali's mutinous soldiers for ousting the President and weakening its fragile democracy.
Affected projects include a USAID-led initiative to improve government research into animal feed needs, the effects of climate change on livestock prices in the north, monitoring water levels, as well as animal food voucher distributions and veterinary training programmes.
Unless donors and the government focus more on pastoralists, Mali's standing as one of the top three livestock producers in the region (Burkina Faso and Nigeria are the others) could change, said one livestock specialist. "This could have a catastrophic impact on getting pastoralists out of crisis this year."