In the process of screening the film, "Elephants in the Coffee", often the questions asked are about the similar conflicts in Africa. Many people are aware of conflicts persisting in Africa but not so much happening in India. They are also not aware that ivory poaching is not the major threat to Asian elephants but the shrinking landscape!
The global species conservation group, IUCN says, 'The search for effective measures to deal with human-elephant conflict is one of the most significant challenges for elephant management.'. Indeed, in the African continent, as landscape are decreasing, elephants in addition face an uphill battle for survival, both for their ivory as well as losing their natural corridors. Much of the land has been taken away for plantations and is getting more and more fragmented. Elephant is the largest land mammal and protecting their land also helps to save the surrounding biodiversity and the woodland forests.
Though the extent of human-elephant conflict in Africa is not as expansive as in Asia, the mitigating efforts and to create large awareness to co-exist is significant. Among several mitigating efforts constantly being tried as Elephant & Bee Project.
Elephants often move quietly at night and crop ride, destroy homes and threaten humans often their might killing people. To protect their crops, livelihood and dwellings, people throw stones, ignite fire crackers or sometimes shoot at them. This leads to heightened aggression and few elephants don't get scared but charge forward. In this scenario continued research has indicated that elephants retreat to the sound of bees in their natural environment. The buzzing sound of bee hives and often honey bee stings on their sensitive parts such as eyes, ears and up their trunks makes them weary of the bees. With their sharp memory, elephants deter from the area for any possible future bee stings.
In an experiment many farmers in Kenya through a collaborative project are installing fence posts along the farming boundaries in an uniform distance of 10 metres. Each of these beehives are connected through a wire string and if elephants come and break the fence, the bee hive nests get disturbed and they start flying around often deterring the elephant to retreat. This experiment adapted in many farms across Africa and now in India too is fairly successful, as long the farmers keep the posts and bee hives in good condition. This approach is also sustainable for farmers in harvesting honey and keeping themselves elephant friendly in a natural way.
In addition to being a deterrent, honey bees are also natural pollinators increasing yields for farmers and helping them sell honey extracted from the hives. Extracting honey is an age old tradition for many farmers that has been adapted for generations.
Across Africa and Asia where elephant conflicts are at a dangerously alarming situation, people have put solar and grid electric fences passing low voltage electricity. This method has not been successful primarily due to the intelligence of the animal itself. Elephants learn quickly that this area is dangerous for their walk through and often understand breaking the circuit through breaking the post or knocking down the fence will break the electric circuit. Once the fence is down, there is no electricity and they can just cross over easily.
In this backdrop, are honey bees the best solution for the conflict? Not so much according to the new research conducted by Mduduzi Ndlovu by the University of Free State. In continuation of the effects of bees for an extended period of time, they find elephants are getting habituated to the threat. The research conclude that treatment evoking both the olfactory and auditory cues of a ‘bee threat’ is required to deter wild elephants. Also, most elephant movement is the night times when ambient temperatures are low and the bees are more passive and aren't active in low temperatures.
Their research findings available on Creative Common Attribution License clearly highlight that, the combination of sound and scent was a more realistic representation of a bee threat, which elicited a greater response from the elephants because: (1) elephants likely associated this combined stimulus with the presence of an active beehive, which indicated a greater threat to elephants than the sound of a passing swarm; and (2) elephants rely on both auditory and olfactory cues to detect a threat.
And this experiment in many of the Asian countries including India is still in an evolving process and has not proved to be hundred percent effective. There is much scope and constant evolution to analyze and find a pragmatic solution to the persistent and growing human-elephant conflict.
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College