Distressing images of poached African elephants have hit headline news in recent years triggering intense conservation efforts to save this iconic and intelligent species. Additionally, there is another less known threat to African elephants but equally as critical: human-elephant conflict (HEC).

Requiring immense tracts of land to satisfy their food, water, migratory and social needs, elephants traverse great home ranges, living alongside humans across the 37 ‘elephant range states’ in Africa. However, in a changing landscape, expanding human populations and increasing competition for land and resources has resulted in the rise of human-elephant conflict. With exacerbating negative interactions, the friction between these two keystone species is reaching distressingly high levels.

As both families and bull elephants migrate through the landscape searching for food and water, they will take advantage of any juicy crops they come across. Using their extraordinary sense of smell and incredible cognitive abilities, elephants have learnt how to break fences to pillage farms at night.

A single night time crop-raid could strip a farmer of up to 20-30 bags of harvest, costing at least 20-50,000 Kenyan shillings which can leave the family desperate and starving. Agricultural losses involve damage to food crops, cash crops, and even food in storage, with the absorption of any loss at the individual household level.

In many rural areas encountering challenging climatic conditions, human-elephant conflict is further exacerbating poverty and food insecurity, penetrating the social fabric of rural livelihoods. Raiding crops and breaking farm property, marauding elephants pose serious social, political, economic and conservation problems in Kenya, as they do in many parts of Africa and Asia.

To avoid confrontations and protect their crops, farmers have traditionally resorted to measures such as shouting, lighting fires, exploding firecrackers, releasing barking dogs, chilli bombs or fences, crashing metal sheets together, and often, if all else fails, using guns and spears to frighten or inflict pain on the elephants. With such dangerous conflict, both elephants and humans are sometimes injured or killed. Although methods such as electric fencing have proved to be effective in separating elephants from community lands, they are expensive and impractical for small-scale farmers to implement. Now, there is a growing focus on creating low-tech and affordable mitigation solutions.

In 2002, experiments by Prof Fritz Vollrath of Oxford University and Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton from the leading scientific research charity Save the Elephants revealed that elephants avoided feeding on acacia trees that had active beehives in them. Their original experiment was reported in SWARA back in September 2002. A buzzworthy find, this sparked exciting new research questions: ‘Were elephants avoiding bees because they were scared of being stung?’ and ‘could live beehives be used as an active deterrent to scare elephants away from entering farmland?’.

Beginning a series of acoustic playback experiments with resting elephants, Dr. Lucy King and her team replayed recordings of disturbed bee sounds from a wild colony of African honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata). The experiments revealed intense behavioural reactions from the elephants such as headshaking, dusting and immediate fleeing – provoked by the sound of disturbed bees. Furthermore, having teamed up with bioacoustician expert, Dr. Joseph Soltis from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, they discovered that upon retreat, the elephants emit a unique low frequency infrasonic vocalisation, a ‘bee rumble alarm’, which warns neighbouring elephants of the eminent buzzing dangers. The experiments revealed that elephants appear to retain a negative memory about honey bees, repelling them from the area.

Moving on to develop a deterrent that had an element of discomfort, Dr. King devised the ‘beehive-fence’ concept – testing the use of occupied beehives in protection of small scale shambas (farms) in Kenya.

The ‘beehive fence’ innovation includes beehives suspended every 10 meters from 9 foot Commiphora posts that re-grow into trees, connected one to the other through a linked wire system. As elephants attempt to enter the farm, they instinctively try to pass between the beehives and as the interconnecting wire stretches, the pressure on the hives will cause them to swing erratically, releasing bees from occupied hives.

Although the project focuses primarily on using Langstroth hives as they provide optimum honey yields for the farmers, any type of beehive can be used. The Elephants and Bees Project team have tested the beehive fence design in three farming communities in Kenya with approximately an 80% success rate, and have produced a concise Beehive Fence Construction Manual that is available for free download from www.elephantsandbees.com.

The present demonstration project site in Kenya is in the foothills of Sagalla, next to the Tsavo East National Park boundary where Dr. King and her team have partnered with KWS to try to reduce conflict with farmers bordering the park. Starting with two trial fences in 2009, the demand from the community has increased so much that the project has now expanded to support 22 of the worst affected ‘front line’ farmers with more planned for construction in 2016. As a result of its uptake success, the concept has now expanded into East and South Africa with communities and NGO’s in Mozambique, Botswana, Uganda, Chad, Gabon, South Africa and Tanzania now trying the idea for themselves. With increasing interest from Asia, beehive fences are now being trialled in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka and despite the Asian honeybee (Apis Cerana) being less aggressive than the African honeybee, playbacks and field-trials are being replicated in Sri Lanka to see if the concept can be adapted to local conditions.