Bees deployed in Tanzania's skirmish with elephants

Elephants that have been stung by bees will avoid them in future, making beehives an effective, non-violent deterrent. (Reuters)

Elephants that have been stung by bees will avoid them in future, making beehives an effective, non-violent deterrent. (Reuters)

People living near the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania are enlisting the help of bees to reduce escalating tensions between them and elephants that trample their crops.

A fence made of beehives is being built around a 500m2 smallholding close to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as part of the pilot project to see if the buzzing of bees will deter the elephants.

The bee fence concept has been deployed in Kenya and Botswana.

As natural habitat is converted into farmland, elephants go there either to eat the crops or simply because their traditional migratory routes passed through the area. People who attempt to drive them out with firecrackers or gunshots can provoke an aggressive reaction from startled elephants, leading to deaths on both sides.

Conservationists have searched for nonviolent remedies to such human- animal conflicts, which also exist in India and Sri Lanka, such as planting chillies near crops or using drones to scare elephants away.

But the bee fence could be the most promising idea of all, with a coalition of groups looking to roll out the concept in the tourist haven of northern Tanzania, which includes Serengeti’s 1.5-million-strong wildebeest annual migration and the Ngorongoro Crater which teems with wildlife, including the big five – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes.

A farm near these neighbouring World Heritage sites will be surrounded by a wire strung between tall wooden polls. Beehives will be hung on the wires and the bees will be alerted to the presence of elephants when the wires are disturbed.

The idea was conceived by zoologist Lucy King, who grew up in East Africa. The pilot study is being funded by a $6 000 grant from the Ian Somerhalder Foundation.

Hayley Adams, a United States veterinarian working on the project, said: “Once the bees vocalise, the elephants will be alerted and run away.

“Elephants are highly cognitive, so if they have been stung before, you’ll see an extreme reaction to the sound of bees. It’s a cliché but elephants have good memories. Some of the younger elephants don’t realise and get stung on their ears, which are very sensitive, so they remember not to go near there again.”

Adams said the year-long trial, if successful, could be expanded across the region and prove beneficial to people living in these areas by not only reducing altercations with elephants but also supplying them with honey for consumption or sale.

“This is far better than firing in the air or using sticks to hit elephants, which just makes them aggressive,” she said. “We need an holistic approach that benefits both people and elephants.”

Adams’s non-profit group, the Silent Heroes, which supports wildlife conservation in 13 countries, will also be involved in the launch of Tanzania’s first elephant orphanage. The Ivory Orphans Project, which is set to open this month, is located near Arusha and will be able to care for up to 40 young elephants whose kin were slaughtered by the worsening poaching crisis in Africa.

About 30 000 African elephants are killed each year by poachers for their ivory. In Tanzania, elephants are being lost at a rate of about 60 a day, although the government insists it is now on top of the problem.

“There are a lot of gaps in the system in looking after orphaned elephants,” Adams said. “I have seen a lot of orphans suffer a lot of behavioural issues; there are a lot of parallels with veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We need to step up the care, not just medically but socially and emotionally.” – © Guardian News & Media 2016



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