Freaking Out African Elephants Could Help Save the Species

Setting up beehives around farms has been shown to help protect crops and animals alike.

(Photo: Gaston Piccinetti/Getty Images)

Dec 16, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Elephants don’t like bees; farmers don’t like elephants; farmers and bees get along smashingly. The idea behind the Elephants and Bees Project—a collaboration between Save the Elephants, the University of Oxford, and the Disney Conservation Fund—is to put the tiny bee to work both making honey for local farmers and protecting humans and elephants from each other.

Though poaching for ivory is a primary threat to dwindling elephant populations, human-animal conflict further destabilizes the species’ future. As their habitats get smaller, these mammals wind up roaming toward human settlements, where they often find the most delicious source of food are farmers’ crops. Not only do these 5,000- to 14,000-pound elephants cause a lot of damage to the ground they trample, but they eat about 900 pounds of food each day. For a small farmer in Africa, where the average farm is only 2.4 hectares (compared with 178.4 hectares in the United States and 1.8 hectares in Southeast Asia, where Asian elephants reside and cause similar problems), an elephant crop raid can be an income-crushing act.

The usual response to these raids—which often happen at night—is for farmers to throw rocks or shoot firearms into the air to scare off the elephants. But this often prompts them to become aggressive, causing injuries and even deaths on both sides. Elephants that have been wounded or whose family members have been killed by humans may also be more aggressive toward people in the future.

Conflicts between wildlife and farmers can be found all over the world, including right here in the United States, where ranchers do battle with everything from coyotes to deer in the name of protecting their livestock (albeit with debatable success). But what do you do when the pest is an elephant, and killing it is illegal (as is the case in Kenya)?

If you’re Elephants and Bees, you look to animal behavior for solutions. “Most people seem to start with the human/farmer side of the problem and don’t do enough research into the natural behavior of the animal with which they are having conflicts with,” said project leader Lucy King. “We are fundamentally a scientific research organization who focus on elephant behavior first, so we know what they need before we try to implement management solutions.” One of the first important discoveries the group made was that elephants avoided acacia trees with active honeybee nests in them. To test whether they could put the elephant’s natural fear of bees into practice, King and her team recorded bee sounds and played them from a hollowed-out tree near a group of elephants. King wrote in an article, “Sixteen of 17 elephant families that heard the bee sounds ran away shaking their heads as if to knock any bees out of the air.”

King offered free hives to a local beekeeping group in Kenya if it would “go along with my crazy idea,” she said. One of the pilot beekeepers—who started with 12 hives—has expanded to 41 on his own. “In Africa, beekeeping is pretty common, so it’s not like we’re introducing a totally foreign concept,” King said. “Everyone loves honey no matter what religion, race, or gender you are.” The main tweak that had to be made to turn beehives into an elephant-proof fence was to move them from treetops, where they’re traditionally hung by beekeepers, to “new locations around the farm boundary,” King said. Compared with building an expensive electric fence to keep out elephants, this beekeeping initiative gives farmers extra income and incentive to keep the hives going, reducing conflict without violence—aside from the occasional sting, of course.

Yet many other animals that wind up in the midst of regular human-animal conflict can’t be dealt with so easily. What if a key trait that can become a tool for management strategies—that elephants are afraid of bees, in this case—simply doesn’t exist? Deer populations in the U.S. provide one example of a harder-to-control animal. They have a high reproductive rate, their natural predators in North America have been largely killed off, and people have differing opinions of them, explained Don Wagner, deer unit manager in the Department of Animal Sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Clear-cutting forest to make more farmland has caused an explosion in the deer population by creating more potential habitats for the “edge species.” He added that many areas have a mixture of farmers (whose crops the deer eat), people who like hunting deer, and those who want to protect the wide-eyed creatures.

One way of managing deer numbers is to confine a herd by building an eight-foot-or-taller deer-proof fence—but if there's population control, the numbers will quickly become unsustainable for the food sources available. (“Depending on how hungry the deer are, they can learn to get through different types of fences,” Wagner said.) Though fewer deer causes less damage, hunting them does nothing to keep them from devouring local crops.

Elephants are a far better candidate for this kind of behavior-based conservation—they reproduce slowly and are illegal to kill. Furthermore, because the bee fence is built from living creatures, there’s a much lower chance of the elephants becoming habituated. “The live bees are the key element that make the system work,” King said. (Another issue with keeping deer out through scenting boundaries with the smells of natural predators: They learn that they’re not going to get eaten after all.) Elephants that decide to break the “fence” can get stung around the eyes, mouth, and “watery end of the trunk,” King explained. “When one bee stings, the pheromone released triggers the rest of the bees to attack; it’s not one bee the elephant is scared of—it’s 1,000 bees all potentially coming to sting the same spot.”

That’s a lot of discomfort even for a 15,000-pound animal.