How Angry Bees Save Elephant Lives

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Written By Ruhit Rahman


Elephants and humans live side by side. It isn’t enough to stop the animals from raiding crops on a regular basis. The more encounters there are between humans and elephants, the more the frictions and tensions rise. And if this trend continues, the odds are rather bad for the elephants.
For local people to value this kind of coexistence, things need to change. The most logical approach would be to separate the two.

But what could solve the conflict by holding off the elephants without harming the ecosystem? Faced with this challenge, a little helper has shown up, who you might not have thought of. The Bee.

These farmers live south of the Pungwe River, on the border with Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique. It’s a wildlife conservation area known for its successful restoration projects. Due to a combination of various landscapes, once held the densest wildlife populations in all of Africa, is still considered a true gem of the continent’s wilderness.

Along the borders of the national park, the human-elephant conflict can be extraordinarily intense.
With the human population in the area constantly growing and in search of more fertile grounds, people started to farm very close to the neighboring river. The elephants are attracted from the other side of the water and leave behind huge swaths of damaged crops. This has led the local population to organize themselves to combat the problem.

They’ve grouped together for night patrols on the lookout for elephants to scare them off and prevent them from destroying the fields. Loud shouts and other noises, flames and fireworks are their methods of choice. Unfortunately, these kinds of activities have already proven elsewhere that aggression towards elephants can escalate, opening the door to illegal activities. A situation like this can soon develop into a breeding ground for poaching and ivory trafficking.
To protect the elephants, more than 250 rangers work in the national park. They monitor the area day and night. They patrol the park, removing snares and keeping track of the animal’s movements. But these activities only help to mitigate the short-term symptoms of the problem.

In order to find a long-term solution, it needs to be tackled at its roots. First, people need to learn and understand how important elephants are to the area.

Elephants are a keystone species. They knock down trees so other animals can find food, and their dung is a valuable resource for the ground and for other species.

They keep the ecosystem in balance: clean water and air, fertile soil and a large variety of species are all vital for sustainable long-term crop growth for the farmers, too.

But apart from raising awareness about the value of these ecosystem engineers, it’s also essential to find a way for people and elephants to co-exist. I can grow a lot of food by the river, but the potatoes are all eaten by elephants. Who is going to pay for this? I’m farming for the elephants! The main goal is to reduce interaction between humans and elephants, and for this, a fence needs to be built along the national park’s borders, but not the usual kind of fence.
This one is composed of beehives. First, the place where elephants usually cross the river is identified. The beehive fence has to be built here, so the elephants will have to pass through it in order to get to the farms. As soon as an elephant tries to pass the fence, it pushes the rope, which shakes the hives.
This agitates the bees. The angry swarm comes out of the hive and attacks the elephant. The night footage from Gorongosa’s camera traps has shown that when they first encountered the fence, the elephants spent up to an hour investigating the beehives. But as soon as they disturbed them, the bees got angry.
They came out on the defensive, stung the elephants, and caused them to flee. Implementing this method across other countries has shown it to be extremely effective. The concept is the brainchild of Dr. Lucy King, Head of “Save the Elephants” Human-Elephant Co-existence Program.
While working on her thesis in Kenya, she researched the stories told by local people about how elephants avoid trees that are home to African honeybees. Elephants don’t want to be stung. Even their two-centimeter thick skin isn’t enough to protect them. The bees choose to sting in their most sensitive regions, like on their trunks, around their eyes, or behind their ears.
It isn’t just one sting the elephants are afraid of, but thousands of them. Once an African bee has stung, it releases pheromones that attract other bees and show them the same spot to sting again. The beehive fence concept and its 80% success rate proved so useful that it soon spread across other countries. In Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Mozambique and many other African nations.
They’re used to protect crops from elephants. Now you can even find them in Asian countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Apart from keeping elephants away from crops, the method has useful side effects for local ecosystems. The bees don’t just protect fields, but also pollinate the plants, yielding an even better harvest for the farmers, including additional income through the production and distribution of honey.
The bee fence is just one part of a holistic approach to reducing the human-elephant conflict. This problem is a very complex one, and the activities in and around Gorongosa National Park shows that it needs to be tackled with a combination of strategies: collaring, monitoring, rangers with camera traps and alarm systems, but most of all: education. Protecting the local ecosystem and its inhabitants, means including local communities, to create a better future for humans, elephants and bees alike. The Gorongosa National Park is one of the most incredible wildlife restoration stories I have ever encountered.
It’s a wholesome example on how to approach conservation initiatives. If you want to support the National Park or the Elephants and the Bees Project by “Save the Elephants” please find the link below.

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