Almost every conservation project stems from a problematic confrontation between society and nature. It is the conservationists job to look for a diplomatic solution which will ideally benefit both society and the natural world, often leading to more sustainable ways of living. The elaborate research that goes into discovering these solutions has always fascinated me. No matter how thorough your research is, nature has a merciless way of producing unpredictable challenges. If there are too many elements involved then unseen problems are likely to arise. Therefore, it is important to start working your natural solution in at a simple level and tinker with it from there through trial and error.
This is exactly what conservationist Fran Mahoney has been doing in Tanzania with her charity, Wild Survivors, to reduce conflict between elephants and farmers. Poachers aren’t the only problem that African elephants face. Crop raiding is the term used for when elephants enter farmland, eating and trampling the famers produce. The farmers have to spend lots of time protecting their farms and some will occasionally shoot at the elephants. Farmers like Julius (below) would work all day on their fields and all night protecting them from crop raids.
(Above: Farmer Julius creates loud bangs to frighten off elephants from atop his ‘elephant watchtower’.)
It was discovered by Dr Lucy King that elephants will avoid going anywhere near bee hives. Whole herds will run if they hear the sound of an angry swarm. This is because they depend on their trunks to breathe, eat and drink. Thus, a bee sting to the trunk can have extremely negative consequences for the world’s largest land mammal. Using this discovery, a genius natural solution to the crop raiding problem was designed. Lining the boarders of the farmers’ fields with ‘beehive fences’. When an elephant tries to enter the field a trip wire causes the beehives to be disturbed, the bees will exit the hives to protect their hive causing the elephant to flee.
So, a strong foundation to the solution was created but it didn’t stop there. A good knowledge of the ecosystem is key to implementing a natural solution. With a good knowledge about the African ecosystem it was transparent that the next step was protecting the beehive fences from every African bees’ worst nightmare. The honey badger. To prevent honey badgers from climbing up the poles and getting to the hives, iron sheets were wrapped around the poles, making them badger proof.
(Above: Honey badger proofed fences. Bee hives are strung every ten meters around the perimeter of the field.)
Fran Mahoney has worked with villagers and farmers to use this technique. She has shown them the benefits of the bee hive fences. They secure the fields from crop raids, bees pollinate their crops and the pure ‘elephant friendly’ honey produced can be sold by the farmers to make more profit from their farm. Thus, empowering communities to take action and move in a direction which is positive for both wildlife and farming.
What do the tusked titans get from all this? Primarily, the whole project is aiming to reduce conflict so the number of elephants killed or harmed by farmers will be lowered. Also,
a greater number of bees will result in more pollinated plants in the area, making the ecosystem healthier. On top of this, Wild Survivors are mapping out elephant migration corridors in Tanzania, creating safe passages for elephants, helping to protect more elephants from human conflict.
I have to appreciate the farmers who are using this elephant friendly method in Tanzania, they are trusting and working with conservationists to find a sustainable solution to the problems they face. Working with nature, rather than against, not only strengthens our bond with the natural world but is the only way to a sustainable future. I think that conservation projects such as the bees saving elephants by Wild Survivors are proof that through research and creative problem solving we can create positive change for both farming and wildlife simultaneously. They aim to solve multiple issues at once. It’s amazing that the simple discovery that elephants avoid bee hives can lead to such a breakthrough in reducing human on elephant conflict. I think this ‘bees saving elephants’ project is the perfect example of how nature holds solutions which, if applied correctly, can be built up to serve multiple interests and only have positive impacts on wildlife and people.
Written by Archie Taplin
Photos: Francesca Mahoney