Conservationists betting on bees to ease clash of humans and elephants


Oliver Milman, The Guardian

Date Published

See link for photos

A community near the famed Serengeti national park in Tanzania is enlisting the help of bees to reduce escalating tensions with elephants that enrage locals by trampling upon their crops.

A fence made of beehives is being constructed around a one-acre farm close to the Ngorongoro conservation area as part of the pilot project to see if the buzzing bees will deter elephants that stroll on to cropland.

It’s hoped that the “bee fence” concept, which has already been deployed in Kenya and Botswana, will help reduce conflict in northern Tanzania, which has become a hotspot for clashes between humans and elephants.

As habitat is converted into farmland by people, elephants are increasingly wandering on to farmed land, either to munch on crops or simply because their traditional migratory routes passed through the area. People who attempt to scare elephants off with firecrackers or gunshots into the air can provoke an aggressive reaction from startled elephants, leading to deaths on both sides.

Conservationists have searched for non-violent remedies to such conflicts, which also exist in India and Sri Lanka, such as planting chilis near crops or using dronesto scare elephants away.

 A beehive fence in Tsavo, Kenya, in 2010. Photograph: Lucy King/AP

The bee fence could be the most promising idea of all, however, with a coalition of groups looking to roll out the concept in the tourist haven of northern Tanzania, which includes the Serengeti, site of the famous 1.5m-strong wildebeest annual migration, and the spectacular Ngorongoro crater, which teems with wildlife including the “big five” – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo.

A farm near these neighboring World Heritage sites will be surrounded by a wire strung between tall wooden polls. Beehives will be hung on the wires, with the bees alerted to the presence of elephants when the wires are disturbed.

The idea was conceived by zoologist Dr Lucy King, who was brought up in east Africa, with the Tanzanian pilot funded via a $6,000 grant from the Ian Somerhalder Foundation.

“Once the bees vocalize, the elephants will be alerted and run away,” said Dr Hayley Adams, a US veterinarian who is working on the project.

“Elephants are highly cognitive so if they have been stung before, you’ll see an extreme reaction to the sound of bees. It’s a cliche but elephants have good memories. Some of the younger elephants don’t realize and get stung on their ears, which are very sensitive, so they remember to not go near there again.”

Adams said the year-long trial, if successful, could be expanded across the region and prove beneficial to the local community by reducing altercations with elephants while supplying people with honey for consumption or sale.

“This is far better than firing in the air or using sticks to hit elephants, which just makes them aggressive,” she said. “We need an holistic approach that benefits both people and elephants.”

Adams’ non-profit group the Silent Heroes, which supports wildlife conservation in 13 countries, will also be involved in the launch of Tanzania’s first elephant orphanage, which is set to open in January. The Ivory Orphans Project, located near the Tanzanian town of Arusha, will be able to care for up to 40 young elephants slaughtered by the worsening poaching crisis in Africa.

Around 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered each year by poachers for their ivory. In Tanzania, elephants are being lost at a rate of around 60 a day, although the government insists it is now on top of the problem.

“There are a lot of gaps in the system in looking after orphaned elephants,” Adams said. “I’ve seen a lot of orphans suffer a lot of behavioral issues, there are a lot of parallels with veterans suffering post traumatic stress disorder. We need to step up the care, not just medically but socially and emotionally as well.”