Monday 09 January 2017, Kenya; Farmers in Mtito Andei have a reason to smile following an initiative by British Airways and David Sheldrick Widlife Trust to construct beehive fences to act as a boundary for agricultural land. The fences not only keep away elephants but also a source of income for the farmers harvesting honey along the Tsavo East National Park.
The project providing a natural solution to human-wildlife conflict in elephant prone areas was first piloted in 2014 initially with Ksh. 700,000 (£5 000) of British Airways funding and provision of equipment and protective clothing for the communities working with the hives.
“In 2016 British Airways provided additional grant money for the construction of another 2.6km of beehive fencing to protect farms in Iviani and Kyusiani villages, close to the boarder of the National Park. The new fences brought the total number of beehives to 131” says Mrs. Sophie Onyango, British Airways Business Development Manager in Kenya.
Beehives are strategically suspended along a fence, which skirts the boundary of an agricultural plot. When an elephant trying to enter the plot disturbs the fence, the bees become agitated and since elephants are averse to the sound of bees, they are naturally repelled. The hives and the posts holding them are painted with distinctive markings so elephants quickly associate the fence with bees and choose to avoid them altogether. This learning by the elephants has an added benefit to cost efficiency for the beehive fence, as not every hive needs to be active, a percentage of the hives are constructed as dummies without any functionality. The plot owner is encouraged to maintain the fence because they will benefit from the income that the honey collected provides.
Initial indications were positive, showing the fences to be at least 80% effective, with only two of every ten elephants finding a way through.
Last year (2016 ) was the year when the beehive fence concept was thoroughly tested as the region experienced one of its longest droughts and highest temperature in recorded history, forcing hungry elephants to forage further afield. At the same time, the Standard Gauge Railway being built across Tsavo National Park has constricted elephant movements. The high temperatures and limited water also affected the bees, so there was not enough honey to be harvested.
Mr. Neville Sheldrick, the local coordinator of the project says that before the project farmers in the area were desperate for a solution and hence were receptive to the idea. “The population in the area are also avid beekeepers and were enthusiastic about getting modern beehives from which they earn income from selling to the local market. DSWT also guarantees sales for the honey” added Mr. Neville.
Mr. Stephen Musyoki, a farmer in the area says they would not have planted anything if the fence had not been in place, as they could not afford to have the elephants destroy their crops.
The problem is elephants, or more specifically what happens when populations of wild elephants come into contact with rural farmers. Animal-human conflict is always an all-too common occurrence in areas bordering national parks in Kenya especially when elephants follow their exceptional sense of smell to track down vegetables or crops from farmers’ fields. For the subsistence farmers a single night elephant raid can destroy the entire farm which is devastating considering that elephants can consume up to 400kg of food a day.
Before the project the farmers would respond by shouting, lighting fires, exploding firecrackers, releasing dogs, hurling stones or chilli bombs and banging drums or metal sheeting. If this doesn’t work they might resort to spears or bow and arrows. The encounters often resulted in people and elephants being killed or injured.
Electric or other fencing isn’t ideal. It is expensive, to erect and maintain. Fences can also cut wildlife corridors, resulting in over-grazing and permanent damage to ecosystems. Confining elephant herds can cause population explosions with consequences for the elephants, other wildlife and the ecosystem.
By contrast bees are easy to keep, don’t disrupt wildlife migration, and provide farmers with another source of income and – most importantly – elephants dislike them.
Since the drought, the first ‘Elephant Friendly Honey’ has been harvested and packaged for sale at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s gift shop in Nairobi.
“People ask me why an airline is involved with elephants,” concluded Mrs. Onyango of British Airways. “The answer is tourism and a simple, clever solution to human, elephant conflict can only be beneficial for everyone.”