Understanding the world of crop raiding and the basis of human-elephant conflict experienced by farmers around wilderness areas is what I have majorly been involved in as one of Dr Lucy King’s interns under the Save the Elephant’s- Elephants and Bees Project.
Most of these poor subsistence farmers are grow their crops on the small scale for their families to depend on after the harvest. Having no other source of income, they depend primarily on what they can generate from tilling their land. So you can only imagine the horror when three giant elephant bulls, stalking the night, like terrorists with an agenda to decimate the fruits of their hard earned labour, come into their lands to wreak havoc. Leaving only with their bellies full, the farmers can only but cry over the spilt milk.
One thing I have come to learn is that not all elephants are crop raiders, it is mostly a habit acquired by the younger independent male elephants, banished from the families to adopt a bachelor life. They are more willing to partake in this high- risk high -gain activities. Habitual raiding in males’ increases with age and the improved nutrition from raiding can led to increased body size and extended musth period which in turn enhances a bull’s competitive ability during mating (Poole 1989). Though matriarchs and their families would benefit from the improved nutrition levels got from the crops, they are basically not willing to risk the lives of their infant calves during these activities.
Could it be socially transmittable? Is the question I seek to explore, as I assume that they learn these behaviors from older more experienced males? The answer to this I will find with more in-depth research.
Is all this preventable though? Is there a way for elephants and man to live in harmony? These are the questions we, the conservationists, and research scientists are left pondering on. The hard truth is that if solutions to alleviate negative impacts of elephants on humans are not found, persistent raiding of crops could compromise elephant conservation.
It is with this in mind, that the elephants and bee project was born. By using the unique protective beehive fences, we are able to use the elephants’ natural fear of the African honey bee, as a natural deterrent in protecting farms from elephants with the flair of crop raiding. The principle behind this fantastic innovation is that it is literally a line of beehives hang on posts, set up 10 meters apart from each other around the farm, all joined together using tough wire. This acts as a moving, buzzing, physical barrier, that should the elephants attempt to cross will be stung by the raging bees. This as a deterrent, has been proven to make the elephants run away, hence proving the fence successful. (King, 2010) (King et al., 2007).
The added benefit of having these beehive fences is that other than getting their farms protected, it also acts as an alternative source of income where the farmers are able to harvest honey and wax from the hives and make some money. Having being part of communities that traditionally practice bee farming it seems almost necessary to make use of this already existing culture to provide additional economic benefits especially in cases where the rains fails and the harvest is not as bountiful as expected.
Having visited the communities that have benefited from this project , and seeing the bright smiles on the faces of the farmers that have enjoyed having beehive fences on their land. I realize the necessity of scientific research in finding practical, sustainable solutions to mitigate such conflict in order to encourage tolerance and promote co-existence between wildlife and the human society.
I would hence like to salute Dr Lucy King for being recognized by the international scientific community as a young environmental leader, having received numerous awards for her mind blowing behavioral research on the intricacies of the relationship between elephants and bees, and using it, as an attempt to resolve human elephant conflict. We all need to get our thinking caps on, and strive to achieve in what we believe.