12 May 2014

Africa: Bee Booby-Traps Defend African Farms From Elephants

Nairobi — Wire fences booby-trapped with beehives are being built in five African countries to prevent elephants from raiding farms, while also providing local people with honey.

'Beehive fences' are now being put up in Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda by UK charity Save the Elephant, says Lucy King, leader of the Elephants and Bees Project in Kenya - and they are already in use at three communities in Kenya.

The project, which is a collaboration between Save the Elephants, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, studies how to use the African bush elephants' instinctive avoidance of African honey bees to avoid crop losses.

King says conflicts between farmers and elephants are a growing problem, with the animals' encroachment onto farms causing massive crop losses.

But she tells SciDev.Net that it is easy to construct simple beehive fences using local materials.

"Hives are hung every 30 feet and linked together," says King. "If an elephant touches one of the hives or the interconnecting wires, the beehives all along the fence swing and release the stinging insects."

She says that a pilot study she led involving 34 farms on the edge of two farming communities in northern Kenya found beehive fences to be an effective elephant deterrent compared with traditional thorn bush barriers.

King says that in the study, which was published in 2011 in the African Journal of Ecology, elephants made 14 attempts to enter farmland and 13 of these were unsuccessful. In each case the elephants were forced to turn away from the area after confronting a beehive fence or walk the length of the fence to choose an easier entry point through a thorn bush.

Only once did elephants break through a beehive fence to eat crops, according to the paper.

More than a decade ago, research found that elephants avoid feeding on acacia trees with beehives in them, says King. "This was followed by behavioural experiments demonstrating that not only do elephants run from bee sounds, but they also have an alarm call that alerts family members to retreat from a possible bee threat," she says.

Electric fences have proved successful in barring elephants from some human designated areas, says the study. But King notes that, in Kenya, electrification projects often fail because of poor maintenance, spiralling costs and the lack of buying capacity among the communities where the elephants are common.

King says farmers and conservation agencies have focused recently on the effectiveness of farmer-based deterrents such as fire crackers, dogs or drums, but the use of beehive fences has proven more successful.

A similar method - playing recorded tiger growls to scare off marauding elephants - has been trialled separately in India.

According to Paul Udoto, corporate communications manager at the Kenya Wildlife Service, the use of beehive fences to prevent elephants from raiding farms is not a silver bullet, but it could be used alongside these other interventions.

He adds that human-animal conflict is largely due to people moving onto land used by animals.

"Where elephants and agricultural land overlap, incidents of human-animal conflict are on the increase," Udoto tells SciDev.Net.

Suresh Raina, a bee expert at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, is impressed with the idea.

It is "an intelligent solution to a challenge which farmers were facing in the past to save crops from the incursion of elephants in their fields," he tells SciDev.Net.

Link to full paper in the Journal of African Ecology

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