Elephants living near Timbuktu make an annual journey encompassing an area of 32,000 square kilometres in order to find the food and water they need to survive.
The trek, made by a species of desert-adapted African elephant [Loxodonta Africana] from Mali's Gourma region, is the largest known elephant range anywhere in the world.
Nine individual animals were tracked by satellite using GPS collars by a team from Save the Elephants, University of British Columbia, and Oxford University, with their findings recently reported in the journal Biological Conservation.
One of the surprises from the research was that male and female elephants only shared a quarter of their ranges, possibly because females tend to be warier of humans or because they are looking for different types of vegetation.
'It's incredible these elephants have survived. They have a truly stressful life with the lack of water and food, and their giant range reflects that,' said Jake Wall of Save the Elephants, Kenya and the University of British Columbia, lead author of the study.
Yet the greatest threat to Gourma's elephants may be man not their harsh environment: three elephants from the region were killed by poachers this year.
'The Mali elephants with their record breaking migration have maintained their numbers in extreme natural conditions of heat and drought. We now fear that they may become victims of civil disturbance in the North of Mali due to the uprising currently taking place,' said Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, Founder of Save The Elephants.
He added that a new anti-poaching initiative by the WILD foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada was beginning to engage local communities and national foresters in defence of elephants. The success of the scheme is all that stands between the poachers and their prey.