[author: Kim Beane]
Photo by Richard Jacobs on Unsplash
Human-wildlife conflict is frequently caused by land-use change and can ultimately end in pandemics like COVID-19 (see Recent UN Report on Escaping the “Era of Pandemics” — More Are Coming If We Don’t Change Our Ways). But when changing the land is necessary, to end poverty or homelessness for a group of people, it can be done well and have a positive outcome.
As the largest land mammals, when elephants move across the land, they have (take) the right of way. Elephant corridors are the “highways” by which the elephants naturally travel between locations of food and water during the seasons. When humans move into these corridors with agriculture expansion or urban development, human-wildlife conflict is almost guaranteed. Each year, elephants cause millions of dollars in damage to crops and trample people to death.
As the elephants move, they search for food and water and if they come upon a promising source, such as a field of crops, they will naturally consume it. Termed “crop raiding” by the village farmers, they not only eat the crops, but also destroy the plants and fields with their bulk. Searching for water, they may rip the tin roof off of a thatched hut in the middle of the night, terrorizing the family. The farmers and villagers become angry and end up lashing out, which in turn increases elephant aggression. Often death or injury ends up occurring to an elephant, a villager or both.
Surprisingly, elephants are afraid of honeybees. The bees swarm all over them and sting where it hurts: in their eyes and mouths and the tips of their trunks. African honeybees are aggressive, and when they are disturbed, hundreds of them will attack at once. Dr. Lucy King is the most well known researcher in this field, and in 2011, she won an award for her thesis on “The interaction between the African elephant and the African honeybee and its potential application as an elephant deterrent” submitted to Oxford University. She found that just playing the sound of bees swarming was enough to drive a group of elephants away very quickly, even when there was no bee anywhere near them. They even threw dust on themselves, as they would do if bees were actually after them, and made specific sounds, warning other elephants in the area. They were pretty convinced.
Dr. King developed the concept of beehive “fences” which are, literally, beehives made of wood and strung on regular wire around a small farm area to be protected. They are cheap and are usually easy to make with whatever is on hand. Every other hive along the fence is a fake or dummy hive. It halves the cost of the fence, with no decrease in effectiveness because if the elephant touches any section of the wire, the bees will swarm.
The beehive fences are currently being used in 17 countries in Africa and India, and have over an 80% success rate at keeping the elephants at bay. Thus, not only are the farmers retaining more of their crops, the bees are increasing the pollination of them, so they have a greater yield. The farmers also have honey to sell — labeled “Elephant Friendly Honey” — and candles and lip balm can be made with the beeswax from the hives.
Dr. Lucy King’s TEDTalk from December 2019 is fascinating, with multiple videos, including one of the elephants avoiding the mere sound of the bees. It currently has over 2.2 million views.
The Honeyguide Foundation, a self-described group of social entrepreneurs, has a different way of deterring elephants. While it doesn’t provide extra income like the bees project does, it is still effective. Working with the US-based Nature Conservancy, they created a four-step, escalating plan to dissuade meddling elephants from eating the harvest. In northern Tanzania there are 60 “crop protection teams” who organize volunteers to keep watch each night. If an elephant is seen going where he, she or they should not go, the volunteer steps in to prevent the elephant(s) from going any further. Each step is used only if the one before it failed. The elephant is never harmed — only made uncomfortable, and hopefully fearful enough to leave the area. The steps are:
1. Flash light that strobes, to confuse the animal.
2. Loud air horn, to scare it.
3. Throw a “chili cloud” — chili powder mixed with small gravel/sand in a condom, and a lit firecracker, which is thrown near the animal’s location.
4. Set off a roman candle near the animal’s location.
There is a video on the website detailing all of the steps and showing how the chili cloud is made.
These programs are small steps in the right direction for closing the knowledge gap in human-wildlife conflict. On their own, they will not prevent a pandemic, but they do matter, and should inspire others.