Human-elephant conflict: Bees fight the sustainable battle in Kenya

2016-12-07 09:48
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Cape Town - A simple, even primitive, solution to conflict between humans and elephants in Kenya is proving that small changes can have a significant impact on the sensitive eco-systems in Africa.

Elephants aren't typically associated with the word 'sensitive', we admit. But considering that the African continent is losing elephants at an alarming rate - every 15 minutes an elephant is killed for its ivory in East Africa - the gentle giants of the continent have become most vulnerable due to human involvement. 

A staggering 30 000 elephants a year are killed by poachers. According to wildlife conservation journalist Scott Ramsay, the African elephant saw a 97% decline in the species in less than a century. 

It's heart-breaking, and we literally cannot afford to loose any more elephants - whether it be because of poaching, human encroachment or anything else. 

Luckily, though an initiative led by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in association with British Airways, human-elephant conflict is being managed in a most sustainable manner - by erecting honey-bee fences between areas where humans grow food, and elephants roam freely. 

The project, piloted in 2014 in consultation with elephant expert Dr Lucy King, has now been expanded. 

The farmers in the area were desperate for a solution and very receptive to the idea two years ago. And their hopes for a solution paid off.

When an all-women team, the Elephant Ignite Expedition, from South African recently ventured up to Kenya in aid of elephant conservation, more bee hive fences could be erected in a bid to save both human and elephant lives and livelihoods. 

SEE: SA women complete 'humbling' 16 000km journey through Africa in aid of ellies

The fences proved to be at least 80% effective, with only two of every ten elephants finding a way through. During project visits local farmers would point to the footprints of elephants that had walked up to and along the fence before turning back towards the park.

To expand the success of the project, partner British Airways has given an additional grant for the construction of another 2.6km of beehive fencing protecting farms in Iviani and Kyusiani villages, close to the border of the National Park.

The new fences bring the total number of beehives to 131.

Age-old problem 

In the Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, human-elephant conflict had become an all-too common occurrence, when elephants followed their exceptional sense of smell to track down vegetables or harvested bags of maize from farmers’ fields.

For the subsistence farmers an elephant raid can be devastating. Elephants can consume up to 400kg of food a day.

The farmers respond by shouting, lighting fires, exploding firecrackers, releasing dogs, hurling stones or chilli bombs and banging drums or metal sheeting. If this doesn’t work they might resort to spears or bow and arrows. The encounters can result in people and elephants being killed or injured.

Electric or other fencing isn’t ideal. It is expensive, to erect and maintain. Fences can also cut wildlife corridors, resulting in over-grazing and permanent damage to ecosystems. Confining elephant herds can cause population explosions with consequences for the elephants, other wildlife and the ecosystem.

By contrast bees are easy to keep, don’t disrupt wildlife migration, provide farmers with another source of income and – most importantly – elephants dislike them.

Dual effective resource

The initial plan with the bee fences was that locals would be able to harvest honey from the fences too. But with the drought that has been experienced across the African continent over the past year, high temperatures and limited water affected the bees, little honey was harvested.

Despite this, the empty hives have proved to be an as effective deterrent as elephants relate the hives to bees and avoid the fence!

Farmers in the area said they would not have planted anything if the fence had not been in place, as they could not afford to have the elephants destroy their crops. The project also provided equipment and protective clothing for the communities working with the hives. 

Since the drought, the first ‘Elephant Friendly Honey’ has been harvested and packaged for sale at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s gift shop in Nairobi.

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