Honing In On Beehives: How To Mitigate Human-Elephant Conflict

Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) has become more prevalent as people encroach on elephants’ habitat. Rates of HEC are expected to rise as the human population increases, along with the expansion of settlements and the need for farmland. In Africa and Asia, elephant habitats have come under threat as it is cleared away for agricultural land. Habitat loss and conflict with humans are among the biggest threats to the survival of elephants. Competition for resources causes crop-raiding by elephants and property damage. This has a devastating impact on small-scale farmers, leading to food insecurity and loss of income. It can also create harmful attitudes towards conservation and result in the retribution killings of elephants.

According to the conservation organization Elephants for Africa, 80% of the remaining elephant population requires land outside of protected areas. Furthermore, elephants must sometimes migrate from protected areas as climate change exacerbates droughts and floods, resulting in resource competition between the elephants and rural communities. Those living on the periphery of protected areas are especially affected. People often risk injury or death from HEC, as stated by WWF. More than 200 people have been killed by elephants in Kenya over the past seven years.

A community’s perception of wildlife determines their willingness to combating wildlife conflict. The conflict between the elephants and the community often fosters resentment and feelings of hostility towards elephants. The result is the killing of elephants in retaliation and their perception as pests. Wildlife authorities in Kenya shoot between 50-120 elephants annually. In Indonesia, dozens of elephants are poisoned in oil palm plantations each year. These conflicts also affect the community’s support of conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

Community-based wildlife management must incorporate the protection of elephants while providing social and economic benefits to locals. Empowering locals with wildlife knowledge, mitigation techniques, and increasing the sustainability of rural communities increases their resilience against the impact elephants can have on rural livelihoods.

A resolution that promotes coexistence is required rather than the current “shoot the nuisance solution.” Conservationists have trialed the use of beehive fences as a humane, eco-friendly way to protect crops from elephants. A study in Kenya, conducted by the NGO Save the Elephants, showed how beehive fences can help mitigate HEC. The idea came from Kenyan farmers who observed elephants’ fear of bees as they avoided foraging in trees with beehives. Hives are placed around crop fields and connected by wires. When an elephant attempts to enter the field, the wires are hit and the hive sways, disturbing the bees. This creates a natural deterrent against elephants as they retreat from aggravated bees.

This method has been largely successful. According to Dr Lucy King of Save the Elephants, “80% of the elephants that approached the trial farms were kept out of the areas protected by the beehive fences.” This data set from Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya shows the beehives fences were 80% effective deterring elephants from entering small 1-2 acre farms.

Although not 100% effective yet, farmers receive compensation through honey sales and pollination services provided by the bees. Beekeeping diversifies farming incomes and creates an economic incentive to value and protect elephants, also helping to alleviate poverty and increase food security. Local communities, when presented with economic opportunities such as this, may see an increase in tolerance toward elephants and other endangered wildlife. The integration of beekeeping into elephant conservation provides an alternative legal, stable income to wildlife poaching and has reduced HEC.

At present, Save the Elephants are studying or implementing beehive fences in 15 African countries and four Asian countries. Among farmers in Africa and Asia, the concept has increasingly gained interest and acceptance. In Kenya, many farmers requested to participate in the field trials; the number of participating farms more than doubled during this period.

Community-based conservation and wildlife management should be voluntary and participatory in order to empower local decision-making. It is vital to consider community history and preferences when developing and implementing projects. Conservationist and biological anthropologist, Katarzyna Nowak, says, “It’s as much about how people receive the particular deterrent method – and therefore maintain it – as it is about the efficacy of it.”

Beehive fences are not guaranteed to be effective everywhere; factors such as the fence design, species of bee, and bee activity all impact its effectiveness. It is also hazardous to work with bee colonies. Wildlife veterinarian Richard Hoare, a member of the IUCN Human-Wildlife Conflict Task Force, states that the beehive fence technique “will most likely only work in rural communities with a previous culture of beekeeping” due to these hazards. Furthermore, hives are a huge investment without the financial assistance of an NGO. The project may also face challenges in drier regions where there is erratic rainfall affecting the flowering season as well as the bee colonies.

No single technique is 100% effective. Where beehives are unsuitable, other tools or a combination of techniques may be used. Researchers believe several methods can be combined to foster coexistence. King says, “I’m a huge fan of what we call the human-elephant conflict toolbox. There’s a variety of options you can use to keep elephants out of your farm and to live better with elephants. Without question, beehive fences should be one of those tools, but it’s not necessarily a silver bullet for the entire problem, nor are any of the others.”

Other strategies include chilli and tobacco-based deterrents placed on fences to prevent elephants from entering fields, growing regional crops that elephants find less-appetizing as well as altering farming practices to make farms more defensible. Additionally, creating wildlife corridors can help facilitate movement and migration so elephants avoid travelling through settlements. Utilizing beekeeping and these other natural deterrents can help promote coexistence between people and elephants to ensure their prosperity.

Jenna Homewood