The University of Newcastle, Australia

Bees could provide an answer to Human-Elephant Conflict

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Imagine sleeping soundly in your home when you hear the heavy footsteps of a full-grown, hungry elephant outside. He’s looking for food, and you have some. The brick wall of your bedroom starts to crumble as he forces his way in to raid the rice and other crops you’ve worked so tirelessly to save in order to feed your family.

It may sound like fiction, but this is a reality for families in the town of Dewagiriya, located in Central Sri Lanka, where hungry elephants are raiding crops and homes. UON PhD student Kylie Butler is working with local villagers to combat the devastation the elephants are causing, and the answer is simple: Bees.

Using the elephants well-known fear of the tiny creatures, Kylie has implemented a ‘bee-fence’ as part of her research under UON’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences, working under Dr Lucy King, head of Save the Elephant’s Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program and project leader of the Elephants and Bees Project. The project involves beehives being suspended along wire fencing, so when hungry elephants knock the fence, the bees are disturbed and scare the elephants away.

“I have a beehive fence research site of 10 fences in Dewagiriya, which is heavily affected by human-elephant conflict. I am working with the farmers to attract bees to the hives and look after the fences, and am collecting data on elephant sightings and crop-raiding events in the village from fenced and un-fenced farms,” Kylie said.

Dr Lucy King has implemented the bee-fence project extremely successfully in Kenya, prompting Kylie Butler to expand the project into Sri Lanka.

“I'm very interested in animal behaviour (elephants most of all), but I didn't want to spend 3 years studying behaviour alone - I wanted to be able to do something practical that might help reduce human-elephant conflict and have benefits for both the local communities and elephant conservation,” she said.

Kylie is currently in the middle of her fifth field season in Sri Lanka and has one more to go. Each field season is between 3 - 4 months long and involves building and maintaining the fences, as well as collecting data. The job involves a lot of travel, but Kylie says she feels lucky to have seen a very different side of Sri Lanka.

“I share my 'home' with all sorts of insects, rodents, snakes, birds and stray dogs. I live on rice and curry and have learnt to cope with frequent power failures, extreme heat and intense thunderstorms! But the village and surrounding lakes/mountains are indescribably beautiful, the people are welcoming and curious, and I get to spend most afternoons watching elephants (and to call it 'work').”

Kylie hopes her research will inform the Elephants and Bees Project, adding to its success and providing villagers in Dewagiriya with the skills and knowledge to ensure their homes stay safe.

“The challenges are a great learning curve, and I've really been able to see human-elephant conflict issues from the perspectives of both people and elephants since being here. I'd go crazy if I was stuck indoors for too long, so this really is overall a wonderful experience.”

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