The Activities of Elephants and Bees and the Sagalla Community
Report by International Intern, Abi Johnson
I heard about the concept of using beehives as an elephant deterrent during a field course in Uganda. Around Kibale National Park there are large trenches used to prevent the elephants from entering the neighboring town. However with all the rain that the area experiences, these trenches often become eroded. Therefore, at a few particularly vulnerable areas beehives were placed. The hope is that the elephants would avoid crossing at those areas because of the bees. I found this concept so fascinating, I researched the theory and came across Elephants and Bees. Naturally, when I found out there was an internship I knew I had to participate.
I have been at the research center in Mwakoma village for a couple weeks now and I have been busy since the first day. I have participated in numerous aspects of the project, everything from rehanging live hives to teaching at the school. Mostly I have kept myself busy with the camera traps and elephant tracking. At some of the farms we have installed cameras that are motion activated, that way if elephants come to the fences their behavior can be observed. Also, it provides vital data such as the age, sex and the number of elephants that frequent the farms, there is also the hope to identify more individual elephants. This information could help paint a picture on what demographic of elephants are visiting these farms. One of my projects is to comb through the thousands of images in order to extract this data. On afternoons where we don’t have field work this makes for a good computer project. However, I love the fact that going out and collecting the cameras enables me to interact with the community. One of the farmers, Tabitha, has a young son, Moses, who often likes to help with the camera traps. He is very good at knowing which of the cameras will have bugs living in the cases, and finds it very funny to yell “Siafu! Siafu!” just as I go to open the container. Siafu or safari ants are notorious for their bites. So, of course, I jump and Moses finds this all very humorous.
I saw Moses last weekend when we were invited to the local church. Some of our farmer’s children were being baptized and were invited to share this special occasion with the community. . The baptisms made the service quite a special event with lots of food and singing. Even Moses was in the choir and dancing in the front. Although he didn’t remember to sing along because he was too busy waving to everyone. It was wonderful to see some of the girls that we teach at the school singing in the choir.
Every Wednesday I have been teaching a class at the Kileva School with the help of our Project Officer Esther. I was especially proud of this week’s lesson, but like with anything even the best-laid plans can go awry. It was a truly multimedia presentation, with video clips, pictures and even a hive top that a honey badger had ripped open. However, I quickly learned I would have to adapt my teaching style. I was explaining the tenuous nature of the honey badger, but anytime Esther or I wrote notes on the board the students focused on the note taking rather than on me talking. Judging from the summaries we had them write at the end, they understood the videos and my verbal explanations more than what was written on the board. Lesson learned, no more writing extensively on the board. Yet generally, they seemed to understand just how thick-skinned honey badgers are, literally and figuratively.
I was able to experience even more of the community during a long elephant tracking day. We began at 9:15 and got back to camp around 3pm which ended up being about 14,000 steps. Judging from the footprints and dung that the elephants left behind, it seemed to be a group of about 4 elephants that would often break into pairs. One pair was often going into the bush while the other followed the footpaths. Emmanuel and Esther are amazing at picking up any sign of where the elephants went. It was especially difficult that day because it kept raining so the footprints were often washed away. Therefore they used broken bushes and plants to follow the elephants.
As Esther and Emmanuel discovered the route, it was my job to follow a bit behind with the GPS that way I could get a more accurate picture of the elephants’ path. Along the way, we talked to four different families that don’t have beehive fences. I hadn’t experienced the destruction that the elephants could cause in a single night yet because I had only met families with the beehive fences. One woman was hit badly by the crop raiding elephants, the elephants destroyed ate dozens of cassava plants. I was surprised that she was relatively calm about the whole situation. She was just busy cutting the roots off the cassava, salvaging what she could. At another farm, a group of women joked and made it clear that they still loved the elephants even though they had been a nuisance the night before. We met an uncle of Emmanuel’s, he was also greatly affected by the elephants. The elephants even uprooted some fairly mature trees. Yet still he joked about his ‘little slice of heaven’ or his ‘holy baby farm’. Even with all of the destruction around his farm, he was still in good spirits. It was great to visit families that we normally don’t interact with and to get a different perspective of the elephant crop-raiding issue. I am grateful that every job I do here has introduced me to more of Sagalla life. And who could get over the view?