Published on the 30th of June, 2016
Fifty years ago, there was widely accepted to be 45,000 elephants roaming Tsavo. These elephants were not constrained to Tsavo, however, and migrated hundreds of kilometres during certain times of year. Today, there are a little over 11,000 elephants limited to Tsavo East and West National Parks and a few relatively small ranches along the borders. Due to the threat of poaching, livestock encroachment and charcoal burning activity, the two largest ranches, Galana and Kulalu no longer carry large herds of elephants. Occasionally, small groups will venture in to these ranches trying to follow some ancient corridor, but these cases are becoming more and more rare. To the northeast of the Parks, elephant movement has been severely impeded by settlements and widespread cultivation. Remarkably, many elephants still manage to navigate their way through the labyrinth of bush that snakes its way between farms and villages. However, at night, some opportunistic elephants find their way onto farms and are capable of flattening entire crops in a matter of hours. For the desperate farmer, this is obviously heartbreaking and breeds intense animosity towards elephants. This makes the challenge of protecting wildlife even more difficult as villagers are more likely to side with poachers than any entity trying to protect something they view as a threat to their livelihoods.
Where elephant poaching has actually seen a drop every year since 2012, human-elephant conflict is rising dramatically and unfortunately this trend is unlikely to change. So what can be done about it? In the areas with very heavy settlement, the best solution is electric fencing. It is a sad reality that elephants should be prevented from roaming wherever they please, but it is too dangerous for them to continue wandering into increasingly hostile communities. Not only are elephants frequently killed by mobs of angry people, but cornered elephants sometimes trample people, which only escalates the problem.
Tragically, when "justice" is called for, there have been cases where the wrong elephant has been euthanised. Just this month a school child has been killed by an elephant near the highway town of Masimba by one of 15 elephants in a small herd that had been browsing near the student's school. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) quickly faced intense pressure from the community to put down the "guilty" elephant. During the process of trying to pacify the crowd, unfortunately the situation escalated to the point that KWS's car was stoned and they were forced to flee. The following day KWS learnt that two of the elephants had been speared to death. Just one week later, on the other side of Amboseli, another young boy was trampled by an elephant on his way to school. In retaliation, two elephants were killed, one of which is suspected to have left a calf behind. Another 30 elephants have had spear wounds inflicted on them. The population of Kenya is projected to be more than 50% higher by 2030, which will further stress relations between humans and wildlife, so the problem is definitely not going to disappear without some kind of intervention.
DSWT does work with KWS, Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and generous donors to provide funding for large stretches of electric fence along boundaries where human encroachment is the heaviest. So far, over 100 km of fence line have been constructed along the western boundary of Tsavo East and the eastern boundary of Chyulu Hills National Park/Kibwezi forest by DSWT. Interestingly, land prices adjacent to Kibwezi Forest increased by several orders of magnitude immediately following the construction of the fence there, providing strong evidence for the value that communities assign to protection. Of course electric fences are expensive and may not be suited to every situation.
Another natural method for preventing human-elephant conflict is a concept that capitalises on elephants' natural aversion to bees by incorporating beehives into a single-strand fence. The idea being that when an elephant tries to raid a farm with such a fence, they bump a wire attached to the nearest beehive thereby agitating the bees and releasing an angry swarm. Once the elephants are aware of the beehives, they avoid the fence altogether. The fence provides the added benefit of creating an additional revenue stream to the farmers in the form of pure, natural honey and pollination for their crops. Trials across Kenya and other parts of Africa have proven very successful and although not 100% effective, have gone a long way to improve the livelihoods of farmers.
So, how effective are the beehive fences? As already mentioned, the beehive fence will not prevent every incursion by elephants. Data collected by Dr. Lucy King of Save the Elephants, who developed the concept of beehive fences, shows that the fences are 80% effective, meaning that only 2 out of every 10 attempts to access a farm are successful. Furthermore, the majority of successful attacks are perpetrated by lone bulls who do considerably less damage than whole families of elephants. Further research indicates that farmers who have implemented beehive fences have a much better perception of elephants than before their farms were protected -- a win-win for conservation.
Last year, near Mtito Andei, DSWT rolled out a pilot beehive fence project to bring relief to an area particularly prone to elephant incursions. Five farms were selected based on forms that we asked the community to fill out reporting incidents of wildlife conflict. After gathering this data for close to a year, we identified the hardest hit farms in the community, which lay along the boundary of Tsavo East National Park along the Mtito River. Speaking with the farmers there, we learned that elephants from the Park tend to frequent pools in the dry river bed at night and having quenched their thirst, move into the community to crop-raid. The row of farms along the river are most vulnerable, followed by the next 3 to 4 rows. It was hoped that by building a fence along the river that wrapped around the farms on each end, we would not only protect those farms but deflect elephants away and potentially protect the farms in the next few rows. Thanks to a generous donation from British Airways, we were able to create almost two kilometres of fence, which has been very successful. British Airways has even provided further funding to create another 600 metres of fence further downstream, which will protect two additional farms from elephants. These two fences are now complete and will provide peace-of-mind to two families in the months to come and especially at the onset of the next planting season.
The existing fence was tested during the November-December rains when elephant incursions became regular occurrences and the farmers reported that elephants were deterred in every instance except for one when a large bull elephant was able to step over a portion of the fence. However, it seems that in almost every case the elephants sensed the bees before even reaching the fence and turned back towards the Park. The farmers who had all but given up have now start to expand the areas that they cultivate again, with one farmer even investing in a small irrigation project to grow vegetables.
The beehive fences are cheap and can be produced with local materials. Although, we have opted for modern hives, which make harvesting easier, even traditional log hives can be used. In an ideal world, other farmers would find inspiration in these fences and improve upon them or better yet, come up with more ingenious solutions to address the growing threat of human-wildlife conflict.