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Saving African Elephants in the Serengeti

By Cheryl Lyn Dybas | Jul 15

Ecologist and science journalist, and Bushtracks guest blogger, Cheryl Lyn Dybas brings her passion for African wildlife and conservation to many publications, including Africa Geographic, Natural History, BBC Wildlife, BioScience, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and National Wildlife. She is also a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers; a contributing editor for Natural History magazine; and a contributing writer for Oceanography magazine. She is a featured speaker on science journalism and conservation biology at universities, scientific societies, and other venues.

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Ecologist and science journalist Cheryl Lyn Dybas reports on the use of beehives to save African elephants in the Serengeti.

Where there are farms along the perimeter of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there are elephants—and all manner of attempts to prevent crops from being trampled.  Farmers have tried various elephant-deterring techniques, from beating tin cans to lighting fires, most of which haven’t appeared to work.

Now officials in Tanzania’s Mara Region near the park have asked authorities to construct fences to keep elephants away from villages and agricultural holdings. The Mara Regional Commissioner, John Tuppa, told a Tanzanian newspaper, The Citizen, that the move will help end destruction of crops by stray elephants. Tuppa is asking for fences to be built as soon as possible.

The ultimate dilemma, however, may be finding ways for humans and elephants to live side-by-side.

Biologist Eivin Røskaft at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology thinks there may be several answers. “The elephant-villager conflict didn’t just start,” he says. “Now there are more open discussions about it. Fortunately, elephant poaching hasn’t really reached the Serengeti, so its elephant numbers seem to be slowly growing.”

But the region’s human population has been rising much faster, doubling over the last 18 to 20 years. The two increases in numbers—elephant and human—likely lie at the heart of the fracas.

“Elephants are raiding crops around the park during the night,” says Røskaft. “These crops are mostly close to the park border, so elephants return to the Serengeti as soon it’s light in the morning.” Elephants are stressed when they leave the park, he says, but the crops are too tempting. “The fact that elephants are more stressed outside the park doesn’t mean they won’t take such risks.”

How to end the stalemate? Biologist Lucy King, leader of Save the Elephants’ Elephants and Bees Project, may have an answer: “beehive fences.”

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Beehive fence in Kenya. Photo by Lucy King

Beehive fences are simple and cheap, according to King, and are made with locally sourced materials. Hives are hung every thirty feet and linked together. If an elephant touches one of the hives, or the interconnecting wire, the beehives all along the fence swing and release the stinging insects inside.

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Local resident showing a beehive fence in Kenya. Photo by Lucy King

In most areas, King says, beehive fences are easily adopted. Beekeeping is an age-old activity, one in which the majority of African communities already participate.  Traditional communities often harvest honey from wild hives and use it as a natural food source and sweetener. Although modern beekeeping is sometimes new to farmers, they adapt quickly to the skills needed to keep hives, says King.

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Building the beehive fences in Kenya. Photo by Lucy King

With her assistance, researchers in Kenya and other African countries are testing the beehive fence concept. Biologists at the Serengeti Development Research and Environmental Conservation Centre (SEDEREC), for example, have conducted trials of beehive fences in villages on the border of Serengeti National Park. 

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Lucy King helping local residents install a beehive on the fence in Kenya. Photo Credit: www.elephantsandbees.com 

Elephants were chased from farms and left to wander toward the beehive fences. When the elephants reached the rows of swinging hives, they diverged around them, then continued on their way - on the other sides of the villages. Since then, the scientists say, there have been no elephant crop-raiding incidents reported along those routes.

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Community members with a beehive fence in Kenya. Photo Credit: www.elephantsandbees.com 

 “Bees do not like elephants,” Røskaft confirms. The feeling, it appears, is mutual. A tiny bee may have more strength than a thundering herd of pachyderms.

 

COMPASSION THROUGH CONSERVATION

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Topics: African Wildlife Conservation, African Honey Beehives, Elephant Conservation

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