Friday March 3, 2023. Rare, ‘one-in-a-million’ footage of a critically endangered wild forest elephant fleeing from a technologically generated bee sound, has been captured by a wildlife camera trap in remote Liberia, western Africa.
The footage, filmed during an audio trial by Liberian-based elephant research and conservation group, ELRECO, shows the huge male elephant happily foraging in a remote Liberian forest near farmland. About 57 seconds into the film, he starts to approach the community boundary and inadvertently trips a remote sensor on a hidden audio tool called a Buzz BoxTM which triggers the sound of agitated bees buzzing. The look on the bull’s face is priceless. He stops mid-munch, recoils, seems to stare in aghast at where the sound is coming from and then turns on his heels and races away.
The crystal-clear camera trap footage is significant as forest elephants are elusive and rarely seen in the wild, especially during the day. In 2021 they were reclassified as ‘critically endangered’ with approximately 150,000 surviving in the wild forests of Central and West Africa. More crucially, the elephant’s behaviour provides evidence that Buzz Boxes are effective in keeping both forest and savannah elephants safely outside of farms and could be a valuable mitigation tool in human-elephant conflict (HEC) hotspots across Africa.
This is the first time Buzz Boxes have been trialled on forest elephants whose lives are under major threat from HEC and habitat loss. The audio study, which took three months, was the result of a unique cross-border collaboration between ELRECO in Liberia and Kenyan-based elephant conservation and research organisation, Save the Elephants and Wild Survivors in Tanzania.
Wild Survivors developed the Buzz Box wildlife technology specifically for savannah elephants to create an acoustic deterrent that would prevent the pachyderms from crop-raiding and to help reduce conflict. It works with a remote sensor which can detect movement up to five metres and can be attached to anything from trees to posts. Each Buzz Box is charged by a small solar panel and is particularly effective when attached to newly constructed beehive fences when actual bees are not available.
The original Buzz Box idea was inspired by Save the Elephant’s beehive fence project, which has an 80% success rate of keeping crop-raiding elephants out of farms and has been adopted by 23 countries across Africa and Asia. The beehive fences and Buzz Boxes are among more than 80 tried and tested elephant deterrent methods that feature in Save the Elephant’s new HEC Toolbox manual
With human-elephant conflict rising alarmingly across the continent, ELRECO wanted to find out if forest elephants would react the same way as savannah elephants to the Buzz Boxes.
ELRECO collaborated with Wild Survivors and, with funding from Save the Elephants’ Elephant Crisis Fund, was able to trial the first-ever forest elephant reaction to the Buzz Box, capturing the phenomenal camera trap footage of the bull in Liberia.
Says Dr Tina Vogt, technical director of ELRECO – “We were absolutely thrilled when we saw the footage. The chance to get this kind of scene is probably one in a million. Not only was the elephant in the centre of the film, but it was daylight and the Buzz Box trigger worked perfectly. The bull’s immediate action was amazing and, with human-elephant conflict so prevalent, it was so encouraging to see him race away from the farmland.”
Says Dr Lucy King, Head of Save the Elephant’s Human-Elephant Coexistence program and creator of STE’s beehive fence project, “This is such a wonderful story of collaboration, partners linking up and working together to research peaceful and effective ways to keep elephants away from communities and reduce human-elephant conflict. Save the Elephants provided the initial research and funding, Wild Survivors provided the Buzz Box technology and ELRECO provided this incredible evidence of a forest elephant reacting so powerfully to the bee sound in the field. We all need to link hands for the natural world and work together to mitigate human-elephant conflict and this collaboration was the first step towards that goal.”
Says Francesca Mahoney, Founder & Director of Wild Survivors, “In our mission to prevent human-elephant conflict, we place community welfare at the heart of wildlife conservation, using innovative wildlife technology along with nature’s own technology – the bees. With communities owning the solutions that foster coexistence with elephants, they can directly benefit from protecting natural resources and maintaining ecosystem biodiversity. Collaboration is at the core of our work, and we are honoured to join with our funders, Save The Elephants’ Elephant Crisis Fund and ELRECO to realise our common goals for the critical protection of elephants across Africa.”
Says Buzz Box Engineer and Wild Survivors Board Chairman, Martyn Griffiths, “The BuzzBox was inspired by Dr Lucy King’s work on beehive fences, research that Wild Survivors recognized aligned with the young charity’s founding goals. Five years later the design has evolved from a costly concept design using off the shelf sound modules to a low-cost proprietary design adaptable to many different use cases, including deep in the forests of West Africa as our partners ELRECO have shown.”
ELRECO also plans to test other audio sounds on forest elephants, including goat screams, to keep them safely away from human areas. According to a community survey run by ELRECO in Liberia, elephants are “obviously afraid” of goats/goat screaming and will react similarly to bees. We eagerly await the camera trap footage.
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Elephant Research and Conservation (ELRECO) is a German conservation NGO, founded and registered in 2017 by the two committed conservationists Dr Tina Vogt and Bernhard Forster. ELRECO’s concern particularly applies to the conservation of the Forest Elephants in Liberia. The two founders have been working in Liberia since 2010, and among others technically supported the development of the Liberia National Elephant Action Plan. ELRECO’s work is very field-orientated, and besides elephant status surveys, genetic dung sampling, and elephant orphan rehabilitation, it currently focuses mainly on community-based Human-Elephant-Conflict mitigation in collaboration with farmers. ELRECO’s overall mission is the survival of a viable population of the iconic Forest Elephants thriving in healthy forest ecosystems and in harmony with people, enabling future generations to appreciate their unique values.
About Save the Elephants
Save the Elephants works to secure a future for elephants. Specialising in elephant research, they provide scientific insights into elephant behaviour, intelligence, and long-distance movements and apply them to the challenges of elephant survival and harmonious coexistence with humanity. High-tech tracking helps plan landscapes while low-tech beehive fences, among other tools, provide people /communities living with elephants with protection as well as income. Education and outreach programmes share these insights with local communities as the true custodians of this rich heritage. Save the Elephants runs the Elephant Crisis Fund in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Network, providing flexible and responsive support to NGOs combatting the ivory trade, promoting human-elephant coexistence, and protecting elephant landscapes.
About Wild Survivors
Wild Survivors works to prevent human-elephant conflict by delivering sustainable initiatives which place community welfare at the heart of wildlife conservation. The team does so by helping recover lost corridors and creating essential route connectivity for elephants, with local community members leading the way as bee guardians; as entrepreneurs in forest-friendly livelihoods; and with a new women’s collective producing honey. Since 2018, crop-raiding has decreased by 59% while farming profit has increased by over 300% in the Ngorongoro ecosystem where Wild Survivors operates.