My Sri Lanka Beehive Fence Experience…
Report from International Intern, Manon Van Der Meer ( Sri Lanka Project Site)
The high temperature, sounds of exotic birds awakening and the distant voice of a Buddhist monk spreading prayers through the village – another morning in Sri Lanka. Almost four weeks ago I left Europe to make use of the amazing opportunity to come to Sri Lanka and participate as an intern in the ‘Elephants and Bees Project’, managed by PhD student Kylie Butler. By working with the elephants as well as including the involvement of the local farmers, I believe that this project has good potential to be fruitful for the long-term. Using honeybees as a natural deterrent for crop-raiding elephants shows us that we do not always have to work against nature in order to improve the harmony of animals and humans living side by side.
The basic living conditions at the research center and the absence of proper doors or windows make it so that you don’t even have to go outside to experience close wildlife encounters. Geckos are decorating the walls, frogs are accompanying you in the shower and cats start nuzzling up against your mosquito net while you try to sleep after a hard day’s work. Fieldwork, however, makes us spend most of the day away from the research center. Most mornings, we go to the village – either by jeep or by tuk-tuk – to talk to the farmers about recent elephant events, to check on the camera traps or to work on the beehive fences surrounding their houses and fields. Working on the fences includes making or fixing shade roofs, digging holes for the posts and inspecting the beehives. The latter has provided me my first ever up-close encounter with a wild snake that was curled up inside one of the unoccupied beehives, resulting in a mutual heart attack for both me and the snake. Occasionally, we walk along one of the transects, searching for elephant dung. I never knew dung could be so exciting: taking measurements of the boli circumferences, using seeds and garbage inside the dung as a way to uncover the elephant’s recent activities and taking DNA samples to determine the sex.
Every afternoon, we head out to the Weheragala water tank or one of the tree huts nearby and cross our fingers that the elephants will do the same. Last field season, Kylie had only seen the elephants eight times in total. This field season however, the elephants have decided to show up in large numbers on a daily basis and keep us extremely busy with taking pictures for the elephant identification file, taking videos for behavioural analysis and writing notes about all the interesting things that happen. We have witnessed packs of confident dogs chasing elephants and elephants chasing them in return, bulls in musth fighting over access to females, a complete herd of elephants fleeing when a harmless peacock walked by, elephants bathing under the full moon, calves discovering how to not use their trunks – I could go on forever. Seeing these magnificent animals grazing peacefully, it’s hard to imagine that some of them wander into the villages, raid farmers’ crops or even damage their houses. The many lumps – most likely scars from gunshot wounds – that some elephants have however do demonstrate that the human-elephant conflict is real and action needs to be taken.
I think the ‘Elephants and Bees Project’ is a great initiative to reduce crop-raiding by Asian elephants in Sri Lanka, although Sri Lanka seems to have a natural ability to ensure nothing ever goes quite according to plan! Hopefully, more and more farmers will realize the importance of maintaining their fences to make sure their hives remain occupied by bees, giving the fences the highest chance to succeed in deterring elephants. Not to mention the additional benefit of harvesting unprocessed honey from the hives, which I can tell you from experience is delicious!
I am grateful to be part of a conservation project like this and have learned so much already. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it sure did since I have only two weeks left before I have to leave Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka and its stunning wildlife and nature have stolen my heart, and I am going to enjoy every minute I have left.