The vast majority of people around the world have only seen African elephants from a television screen, from behind fences in zoos, or- if they’re lucky- from a safe seat in a safari car as it bounces past the grazing giants of the Serengeti. From those vantage points, it’s impossible to look at the massive bodies, dexterous trunks, and intelligent eyes of the elephant and not feel a keen sense of wonder and awe. Elephants are some of those ‘charismatic megafauna’ that capture the hearts of people worldwide, making conservation efforts seem like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to protect and save these wise, complicated, prehistoric-seeming creatures?
The people who share a homeland with elephants might be in that category.
Elephants are herbivores, and must eat almost constantly to maintain enough calories to support their gargantuan bodies- individual adults can consume between 200 and 600 pounds of food per day. Traveling in family groups that can consist of 10-20 elephants or more, that’s an incredible amount of vegetation needed to sustain a herd.
In addition to the grasses, roots, fruit, and bark found in the wild, elephants have quickly learned that their human neighbors can provide a tasty supplement to their diet- fields of carefully tended yams, cassava, corn, plantains, and grains. A herd of elephants can destroy a subsistence farmer’s means of food and income for the whole year in just a single night.
These episodes of crop raiding have created dangerous situations for people living in sub-Saharan Africa. Desperate to protect their livelihood, farmers may try to stay awake all night, ready to yell and bang pots in an effort to frighten away any pachyderm pilferers. However, elephants are not so easily startled by humans, and have been known to attack and kill would-be crop defenders. In anger and frustration, a group of villagers may then retaliate and try to kill the next group of elephants they see. These was creating a vicious cycle of animosity on both sides; elephants are intelligent creatures, and once they began associating humans with pain and disruption, there was evidence that they became more violent to humans in future encounters.
The heightened tensions were disastrous for both humans and elephants, and a solution was desperately needed to protect both vulnerable groups.
There had been local rumors buzzing around for a while that claimed elephants were afraid of bees, but it wasn’t until researchers Fritz Vollrath, Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, and Dr. Lucy King investigated that those results were confirmed to the rest of the world. When confronted with the sound of bees buzzing, the elephants would immediately retreat and send out a rumbling call that would warn other elephants of danger in the area. Additionally, the elephants would begin shaking their heads and dusting themselves, suggesting that their skin was sensitive to bee stings and that they knew to associate the sound with potential pain.
Armed with this knowledge, researchers, nonprofits, and government groups set out to make affordable beehive fences that could protect precious crops from marauding elephants and protect elephants from learning dangerous behaviors that would bring them into conflicts with humans.
In the last few years, as the success of the beehive fences has been proven time and again, they are gaining in popularity throughout Africa. The fences are genius in their simplicity; a hanging box hive is hung from a fence every ten meters, all connected by wire. This way, if an elephant brushes against the fence or wire, the hives will swing and rock and the bees will swarm out to get away from the disturbance. Nearly 100% of the time, the elephant will turn tail and run, warning its family members to stay away. Thanks to their famous memories, the elephants won’t soon forget that lesson.
Not only do the fences allow farmers to harvest their full crop without any losses to elephants, but the honey produced in the hives has also found a niche market. “Elephant-Friendly Honey,” as it’s called, has been a huge hit with globally conscious consumers who increasingly want to know that the products they are buying support a good cause.
African elephant populations have slowly been increasing since the poaching crisis that decimated their numbers in the 1970’s and 1980’s. While the rest of the world celebrated that fact, many African people living in close proximity to elephants couldn’t see why people around the world were so eager to save the creatures that were plaguing their lives and livelihoods. Now, thanks to an increased effort to help protect people along with ivory-tipped neighbors, more and more people are able to view their globally treasured wildlife with a sense of pride instead of fear.
KATHARINE ROSE FIELDING
Katharine Rose was born in Maryland and is currently working for the Condor Recovery Project in California. She studied wildlife management in East Africa, and gained a deep passion for wildlife conservation, social activism, and travel while there. Since then, she has traveled and worked throughout the United States, South America, and Asia, and hopes to continue learning about global conservation and inspiring others to do the same.