Having survived the harsh conditions of the desert and peacefully and coexisting alongside the local populations for centuries, the current political instability and its consequences is yet another stress to this elephant population, already at the limit of its endurance.
My first trip to Timbuktu occurred in 2003, long before this current conflict. I arrived in Timbuktu and the air emitted a certain respect for history. The architectural structure reminded me that I was in the midst of a city of knowledge that had existed for hundreds of years.
Arriving at the dusty hotel that had just re-opened the day before as the rebels were fleeing Timbuktu, we realized that we had made it. But as we stretched out that night, filthy and exhausted, it dawned on us that our work was only just beginning.
Their stories sound the same, with small variations, punctured by half sentences, and words such as fear, "had to flee," "on the road for four days," "could not take anything with us," "husband left behind," "life turned upside down."
I cannot predict the outcome of what may turn out to be a long lasting military conflict in Mali. Even so, it is worthwhile to pay attention not only to the short-term news of military maneuvers and human suffering, but also to the long term stories of human resilience.
The youth also dream of joyful crowds, confetti, Frank Sinatra, "New York, New York"... celebrating New Year's Eve, carefree, with a bunch of friends, a glass of champagne in one hand, dancing and saying, "Happy New Year." Why should this privilege only be reserved to the West?
Whilst equipment, intelligence, training and support from American, British and French special forces will add steel to the operation, it will nevertheless involve difficult desert fighting conditions against a well-armed enemy.
Timbuktu conjures up images of remote parts of the earth and fabled ancient monuments. Now radical Islamic groups, with ties to al Qaeda, have taken over the north in Mali, destroying monuments and torturing civilians in a brutal interpretation of Sharia law.
The Prophet Muhammad once said that if one sees an injustice, one should stop it with the hand. If this is not possible, one should speak against it with the tongue, and if this too cannot be done, one must reject it with the heart.
As the American presidential campaign swings into high gear, recent events in the fabled city of Timbuktu remind us of the very real social and cultural costs of religious and political fundamentalism.
Military occupation is not only bad news for the people who live in Timbuktu, but also for its world-renowned centers of learning that house precious manuscripts, some of which date to the 13th century.