Sri Lanka Beehive Fence Progress
Blog by Kylie Butler, Elephants and Bees PhD Candidate, Sri Lanka
I arrived back at the SLWCS Field House 3 weeks ago to begin my second stint of PhD field work, investigating the potential of beehive fencing as a deterrent for crop-raiding Asian elephants. In collaboration with Dr. Lucy King (Save the Elephants) and SLWCS, we plan to establish a research site of 10 beehive fences in a village experiencing high levels of crop raiding. We want to know if this simple technique will prove as useful to farmers in Sri Lanka, struggling to protect their homes and crops from elephant damage, as it has in Africa where Dr. King first designed and implemented the idea. I will also be investigating elephant social behaviour, personalities and relatedness in various areas they frequent – farms, peripheral community areas such as water tanks, and within Wasgamuwa National Park boundaries. This information will then be analysed in the context of what it might reveal about the propensity of certain elephants to crop raid, and how this may relate to the effectiveness of crop-raiding mitigation techniques.
Beginning a brand new project in a new village is both exciting and very challenging. Just learning the pronunciation of people’s names can be a task in itself, not to mention the language barriers, meetings with individual farmers often turning into a whole village entourage, car breakdowns and afternoon storms – each putting their own spin and lesson on a typical day in Sri Lanka. Without the on-ground assistance of my field assistant Supun and SLWCS staff Chandima and Chinthaka, plus Lucy’s valuable advice when required, I sometimes think I would be completely overwhelmed! I’m quickly learning to expect the unexpected and only be worried if things start to go to plan too smoothly.
In July this year, we visited several villages to assess where the most suitable location to establish the beehive fence project might be. We met farmers from Dewagiriya village, who experience huge problems with crop-raiding elephants and receives no outside assistance, apart from a few fire crackers here and there. Like many rural villages in Sri Lanka, people have little money and rely on their crops as their main source of income. With vast paddy fields bordering water tanks and areas of forest, it’s perfect habitat for elephants. Of further concern is the tendency of elephants to come right up to people’s homes, destroying fruit trees and damaging houses to reached harvests stored inside. While very few people in this village have prior experience with beekeeping, people seem interested to learn and desperately want help protecting their crops and homes. One of the biggest difficulties was explaining that we need to start this project with a small trial of about 10 beehive fences, to see if Asian honeybees have a similar deterrent effect on elephants, as the more aggressive African honeybees do. To ensure as much of the community as possible can benefit from the beekeeping project, we have decided to provide all farmers helping with data collection and beehive fence building with a bee box and the opportunity to attend beekeeping training days.
I spent much of the meeting talking about the benefits of beekeeping – particularly pollination services and the health and economic benefits of honey and wax. I also re-capped the beehive fence elephant deterrent concept, being careful to emphasise that we don’t know if this will have the same deterrent effect as in Africa, but that combined with the benefits beekeeping can bring to individuals, it’s an idea well worth trying. Presently, people are scaring elephants by making noise, shooting at elephants (although this is not readily admitted to me, we constantly see elephants with wounds and abscesses caused by gunshot), and throwing things – stones, fire crackers and fire sticks. People are desperate to keep elephants from their fields and homes, but the above methods which often injure the elephants seem to be increasing the aggression of elephants towards people, and a vicious cycle ensues. If beehive fencing proves to be a successful deterrent, it could replace or reduce other more aggressive methods of scaring elephants, keeping both the people and the elephants safer.
The community compiled a list of 16 families spread across the village who they thought were most affected by crop-raiding. Supun and I have begun visiting these farms, asking more about the problems they are experiencing, and walking with them around their home and garden areas, and also looking at their paddy fields. To properly understand the scope of the issues, I will use a translator proficient in both Sinhalese and English to conduct more structured interviews. Setting up the beehive fence trial site is probably the most important aspect of this project – the need to select the locations most suited to effectively testing the fences deterrent capabilities is imperative to ascertaining what role beehive fencing may play in reducing crop-raiding in Asian elephant range countries. And while I’m keen as custard to get building the fences, building relationships with the community and getting to know individual farmers is equally important.
Overall, this field season is off to a busy and productive start, and I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead as we begin building the fences, teaching beekeeping, and monitoring the activity of the elephants. Stay tuned for more updates from the field!
I extend a huge thankyou to the Rufford Small Grants for Nature Foundation, Chester Zoo Conservation Grant and Elephant Action League for their financial support, without which this project would not be possible. Sincerest thanks also go to collaborating partners The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, Save the Elephants and Professor M. Wijayagunawardane (University of Peradeniya) for all of their valuable input and assistance.