Human-Elephant Conflict and the use of Honeybees: A South African’s Perspective in Sri Lanka

Written by Sri Lankan intern, Robin Cook

Growing up in South Africa, I have always known that large fences, sometimes even electrified, stood between us and the African elephant population. To see wild elephants meant taking a trip to one of our many fenced-off reserves and observing the elephants from the safety of a vehicle. Most South Africans, therefore, do not experience Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in the same form as people living in other elephant-containing African and Asian countries. Because of South Africa’s setup with fenced-off reserves, HEC often takes shape in the form of elephant impact on various species of large trees, and how conservation managers respond, sometimes lethally, to reduce such impact. My Master of Science degree, for example, centred on the use of African honeybees to protect marula trees from elephant impact. This research, through the Elephants Alive research organisation, was certainly relevant to the South African form of HEC. What an eye-opener it would be for me then to take over as project coordinator at the Elephants and Bees Project’s Sri Lankan study site earlier in July 2017.

Bees to protect Trees, South Africa

Bees in Trees protecting Marula Tree, South Africa

The first fact which I had to get my head around was that the Asian elephants here are not completely fenced-off in the nearby Wasgamuwa National Park. They are free to follow various elephant corridors throughout the region, often using the surrounding forests belts for cover. From an ecological point of view, this is a very exciting concept, considering that this migratory process has been cut off in many of South Africa’s fenced off reserves. However, from a social point of view, it is also a trigger for potential HEC. As humans and elephants compete for the same water and land resources, the chances of interactions increase. This is why it has been such an eye-opening experience to be involved with the Elephants and Bees Project here in Sri Lanka. Following a similar concept to Dr Lucy King’s original work in Kenya, beehive fence-lines are set up around various farms to protect the houses and gardens from elephant impact. The project, started by PhD candidate Kylie Butler, with the help of research assistant Supun Herath and the team from the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS), has been running for a couple years- the aim being to test whether Asian honeybees can protect the Sri Lankan farms from crop-raiding Asian elephants.

Beehive Fence Maintenance, Sri Lanka

Beehive fences in Sri Lanka

From an animal behavioural point-of-view, it’s been fascinating to observe the differences in the behaviour of the Asian elephants and honeybees, versus their African (or South African) counterparts. The Asian elephants appear to be far more cautious and restless compared to the ‘typical’ elephant in a South African reserve, and this makes sense when one considers the high levels of HEC in Sri Lanka. These elephants’ behaviours resemble those of just a few groups of South African elephants that are either exposed to poaching or hunting activities. The Asian honeybees on the other hand are far more docile than those in Africa, which have made working with them a very unique experience. To watch Supun open up a beehive wearing the bare minimal protection amazed me.

Data collecting, Sri Lanka

Bee Feeding Stations, Sri Lanka

One aspect though, which I’ve really enjoyed, is working with the farmers. Whilst in South Africa I was worrying about elephant impact on trees, here I’ve seen the full devastation of elephant impact on peoples’ livelihoods. From banana trees being ripped down, to a house having its wall smashed down, this is HEC on a completely different scale. However, whilst these farmers live under the constant threat of lurking elephants, they are some of the most humble, kind-hearted families I have ever met. Always ready to help with fence maintenance duties and quick to invite you inside for tea and biscuits after a hard morning’s work, it has been an absolute pleasure to meet some of the people behind the statistics of HEC in Sri Lanka. Having come from a purely elephant-based research background, it has been incredibly eye-opening to be a part of a social-ecological project, where both elephants’ and peoples’ livelihoods are at stake. Added to that, the conservation of honeybees worldwide is becoming increasingly important, and projects that promote sustainable living with honeybees are vital for the continuation of honeybee pollination services.

Assessing crop raid damage in Sri Lanka

Broken Wall from elephant damage, Sri Lanka

Having been involved with both the South African and Sri Lankan Elephants & Bee projects, it has been intriguing to examine both the similarities and differences between both projects’ setups and objectives, as well as how honeybees have been used to reduce HEC at both project sites. As the two countries have completely different elephant management systems, mitigation methods need to be adapted in order to suit the HEC situations. It is highly encouraging, therefore, to witness how the Elephants and Bees Project’s methods can be modified across various continents and management systems. Whether Asian honeybees are being used in fences around farms to protect Sri Lankan farmers from crop-raiding Asian elephants; or African honeybees are being used to protect a keystone tree species from African elephant impact; the end result is a non-lethal reduction in HEC. And in today’s modern era, where paradigm shifts are required to seek alternative sustainable methods of managing our natural resources, the idea of promoting honeybee conservation as a means for promoting elephant conservation, is particularly appealing! It has been both a privilege and an incredibly humbling experience to work either under or side-by-side with organisations such as the Elephants and Bees Project, Elephants Alive (South Africa), and the SLWCS. It is never an easy task to implement new conservation methods, but for the purpose of protecting our African and Asian elephant populations, new ideas are sometimes required to allow for humans and elephants to peacefully coexist.

Supun, Robin & elephants in Sri Lanka

Elephants, Bees and Trees, South Africa


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