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On the show today – resolving conflict in a different kind of relationship, between two species that have lived side by side for thousands of years, humans and the world’s largest land animal.
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LUCY KING: So I love elephants. But they are a 7-ton, 3-1/2-meter-tall huge pachyderm, and they can be incredibly terrifying, particularly coming at you through the dark at nighttime, when your only refuge is a mud hut.
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ZOMORODI: This is zoologist Lucy King. She works in Kenya with the group Save the Elephants.
KING: To have an elephant come to you in the dark like that is something you really can’t understand until you’ve been there. We’ve had farmers who’ve had the roofs of their mud huts ripped off in the night and had elephants reach in with their trunk and grab food or water that was inside the hut. Now, you can’t imagine what that must be like – having your kids, like, held away from a trunk searching in the dark. You have no electricity. You have absolutely no way of getting out ’cause if you left your hut, you’d be walking into an elephant herd. And you can’t find your torch. And it’s really very, very scary.
ZOMORODI: Lucy says this type of confrontation between people and elephants used to be pretty rare. Here she is on the TED stage.
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KING: It was only as recently as the 1970s that we used to have 1.2 million elephants roaming across Africa. Today, we’re edging closer to only having 400,000 left. And at the same time period, the human population has quadrupled, and the land is being fragmented at such a pace that it’s really hard to keep up with. Too often, these migrating elephants end up stuck inside communities looking for food and water, but ending up breaking open water tanks, breaking pipes and, of course, breaking into food stores for food. These elephants also trample and eat crops, and this is traditionally eroding away that tolerance that people used to have for elephants. And, sadly, we’re losing these animals by the day and, in some countries, by the hour.
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ZOMORODI: And so, basically, the root of this conflict is a struggle for space and resources.
KING: Yeah, mostly because more people are becoming sedentary, and more people are on the lower end of the economic scale. So more and more people are having to be subsistence farmers to grow their own food. So we’re talking people who have an acre to five acres of land. They’re scratching a living off this land to try and keep them – theirselves (ph) going. And if an elephant comes onto a plot of land of that size, they can finish a crop in one night. So you end up having a farm absolutely destroyed. And these farmers get very, very desperate, desperate enough to injure or potentially kill the elephant to keep them out of their community.
ZOMORODI: And what about the other way around? Will elephants injure or kill humans?
KING: Very sadly, yes. It’s – if an elephant starts to be feeling very threatened, and by this, I mean people coming at them through the bush, shouting at them, throwing things at them, you know, trying to distract them from the crops when they’re driven by a need to eat that crop – it can turn very violent very quickly. Elephants have picked up people and, literally, hurled them across the floor and just broken them. So it can be very aggressive and very, very scary for everyone involved. So it’s a big challenge and a really difficult cycle to break. You have to provide a solution to that, and only then can you turn it into more of a coexistence and tolerance.
ZOMORODI: So you wrote your entire Ph.D. about this, and you actually found a solution, one that doesn’t hurt the farmers or the elephants.
KING: So we based this whole study on this Kenyan folklore that elephants wouldn’t go near trees which had beehives in them. So I studied this. I put beehives in trees. I waited for the bees to come, and I would watch and record whether elephants would come anywhere near them. And I did, one day, come across a beehive I had put in a tree which had a huge swarm of bees in it. It was right at the top of the tree. And it was in the middle of the day, and it was very hot. So the bees weren’t actually doing very much. There was one or two flying in and out. And I saw these elephants resting underneath the occupied beehive.
And I was totally distraught, and I thought, well, this is the end of my Ph.D. They’re not scared of bees. This is a disaster. And then, of course, we realized that nothing was disturbing anyone, so the bees didn’t need to sting the elephant. The bees weren’t doing anything. So we decided to throw a stone at the beehive and see if we could disturb the bees. So my amazing field assistant picked up a stone and threw it at this occupied hive. Luckily, the stone didn’t hit the elephants on the way down. It kind of zinged off into the bush. But the hive got knocked by the stone and erupted.
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KING: And the elephants just ran for their lives.
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ZOMORODI: So you did it. You proved that the folklore was true that elephants are indeed terrified of bees. What went through your mind?
KING: Well, it was just one of those eureka moments of seeing those elephants running away from really disturbed bees. And I just kept thinking, well, this is it. If we connect the hives to each other or to some kind of system that, when triggered, causes a swinging sensation, the hives will shake and release the bees that are inside. And the bees will come out and sting the elephants or at least chase them away with the buzzing sound and the smell of honey.
ZOMORODI: An elephant, I mean, has pretty thick skin, though. Why are they so afraid of bees?
KING: Yeah, it is extraordinary. They have very thick skins. It can be over two centimetres thick on many parts of their body. But they also have a lot of thin, very vulnerable skin, and that is around the watery areas. So bees are also attracted to water. So around the eyes, the skin is very thin. And the trunk – at the tip of the trunk, which is quite watery, it constantly drips and has a lot of secretions. And behind the ears, the skin is very, very thin. So we know that bees can sting in those very thin-skinned areas. And we’ve seen elephants that have been stung, and sure enough, their eyes do swell up. So they probably will never forget that sound and then the pain of it afterwards and then the negative sensation of your skin swelling. So we’re pretty sure that this is something they learn during their 30-, 40-, 50-year lifespan. And then, of course, they teach their young ones to stay away from that sound as well because they know that that sound leads to this pain of a sting.
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KING: I’ve done this experiment many, many times, and the elephants almost always flee. Not only do they run away, but they dust themselves as they’re running as if to knock bees out of the air. And we placed infrasonic microphones around the elephants as we did these experiments, and it turns out they’re communicating to each other in infrasonic rumbles to warn each other of the threat of bees and to stay away from the area.
This led me to invent a novel design for a beehive fence, which we are now building around small 1- to 2-acre farms on the most vulnerable frontline areas of Africa where humans and elephants are competing for space. These beehive fences are very, very simple. We use 12 beehives and 12 dummy hives to protect one acre of farmland, basically tricking the elephants into thinking there are more beehives than there really are. And, of course, it literally halves the cost of the fence. They’re held up by posts with a shade roof to protect the bees, and they’re interconnected with a simple piece of plain wire, which goes all the way around, connecting the hives.
So if an elephant tries to enter the farm, he will avoid the beehive at all costs. But he might try and push through between the hive and the dummy hive, causing all the beehives to swing as the wire hits his chest. And as we know from our research work, this will cause the elephants to flee and run away and hopefully remember not to come back to that risky area.
ZOMORODI: I mean, Lucy, it’s kind of incredible that there was a surprisingly simple solution that turned out to be a win for everyone, that nature had the answer to finding a way for humans and elephants to coexist.
KING: I agree. And I think humans have a tendency to over-technicalize everything and to just find a problem and then just go, right. Can we create an app to solve that, or can we build a bigger wall or design a better electric fence? Or what can we do? And I just think we need to stop for a bit and think that nature has so many of these solutions. And how did people live before with this? And how have elephants not destroyed every tree or every house in the past? So I think it’s just – if there’s one thing I can say, it’s we can use this story as a case study to just help us all take a step back and start to think a bit more naturally and a bit more holistically about some of these problems and to try and not turn it into some sort of expensive technological result.
There are wonderful examples of innovation and ideas coming out from just thinking laterally around this problem. And in the elephant world, one of the other major things that’s being used is the growth and use of chiles. Elephants don’t like chiles, either. So you can grow hot chiles. You can either grow them around your farm, or you can dry them and crush them into chile powder and mix them into dung. And you can burn those dung piles filled with chile, and the smoke is so acrid that the elephants run away from the smoke.
And so I think we’ve got to use solutions like this more and more if we’re going to move forward with a natural and healthy world. If a beehive fence can be one of those pieces in the jigsaw to help, then that’s going to be the piece of the jigsaw I’m going to work on probably for the rest of my life.
ZOMORODI: That’s zoologist Lucy King. And by the way, her team has installed about 8,000 of her beehive fences around the world. You can find her full talk at ted.com.
On the show today, new ways of resolving conflict. I’m Manoush Zomorodi, and you’re listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.