Elephants, people and bees
Subsistence farmers who live around Ruaha National Park live in constant fear that elephants wandering outside the park boundary will raid their crops. Elephant crop raiding events can result in heavy losses for local farmers, and cause people to feel enormous animosity toward these animals which are perceived as a threat to their livelihoods. This negative perception of elephants makes them extremely vulnerable to poaching, an activity which is currently devastating elephant populations in Ruaha, and across Africa.
One of the most effective strategies we use to prevent elephant crop raiding behavior, is to enclose farms with “beehive fences”.
This method was developed by Dr. Lucy King (Save the Elephants), who observed that elephants naturally avoid bees -imagine the risk of bees flying around inside an elephant’s trunk! The design incorporates locally constructed beehives, which are strung intermittently between wooden poles to compose a primitive fence. When elephants bump into the fence and disturb the associated hives, the sound of bees causes elephants to flee. You can see elephants reacting to the sound of bees in this rather amazing video, courtesy of Dr. Lucy King:
The method exploits a relationship that elephants have long shared with bees in their natural environment, and it has been shown to be quite effective. Importantly, this strategy also offers farmers an alternative to farming (an activity which puts them in immediate conflict with wildlife), through the harvest and sale of honey. It may also encourage local people to plant and even reforest areas, as an increased abundance of plants would increase the bee population.
The work of Wildlife Connection
We tested beehive fences for two consecutive years using the most basic type of beehive, made from hollowed out logs, and found that it very successfully deterred elephants. In 2014, we began incorporating the more sophisticated Kenyan Top Bar Hive (pictured below), which produces higher quality, marketable honey. Today, we maintain five beehive fences in each of three villages (approximately 300 beehives total) that are most effected by elephant crop raiding. These fences have provided desperately needed help to people whose farms are raided every year, and also serve as demonstration sites for other farmers in the area.
Felisto Kabonyela, Education coordinator (left); Kessi Kuandama, HEC officer (right)
Individual farmers who benefit from the fences are our greatest ambassadors:
“Before I felt bad about the idea of protecting elephants- I had no power to do anything about them eating my crops and no right to complain about them, especially as a woman. Now I have the power to protect my farm, and to teach other people how to protect theirs. I feel differently about elephants now; I want to protect them for the next generation.” – Mrigo lives in Malizanga village and received her fence in 2017.
“Before I had the fence, I hated elephants because they raided my crops a LOT. The village benefited from conservation (funding for schools and clinics), but I did not benefit. Now I love elephants because I don’t have to worry about them crop-raiding, and they can be protected for the next generation. I like to see them very much, but from a distance.” – John lives in Kitisi village and received his fence in 2014.
Where once it was almost impossible for people to believe bees could protect their crops from elephants, there are now dozens of farmers in each of the villages where we work who want a fence of their own. Wildlife Connection will continue our work to meet this demand in 2018 and 2019, though our success will depend on funding availability. If you would like to support this program, please consider making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you for reading about our work!