Guest post by Dr. Lucy King – Elephants & Bees Project, Save The Elephants
I’ve just returned home to Kenya after a fascinating month working with Dr Shermin de Silva and her team at the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka. There have been several productive links between Dr de Silva’s project and ours at Save the Elephants over the years and key to the collaboration has been the ability to compare elephant population ecology between Kenyan and Sri Lankan elephants. However, I went to work in Uda Walawe National Park for an entirely different reason – bees!
With the growing success of our Elephants and Bees Project in Africa, where we protect vulnerable farms from elephant crop-damage using novel Beehive Fences (see our website www.elephantsandbees.com for more information), there has been more interest developing from elephant projects in Asia to see if we can export our idea to help Asian farmers from Asian crop-raiding elephants. Sri Lanka is an ideal country to start our research as there are so many elephants packed onto a relatively small island and the human-elephant conflict issues are severe and will only increase as the development and human expansion grows on the island.
Essential to our research is trying to understand how Asian elephants will respond to Asian honey bees, Apis cerana indica. We know the Asian honey bee is notoriously less aggressive than their African honey bee cousins, Apis mellifera scutellata, but its possible that elephants still come across wild beehives and still prefer to avoid them and the occasional sting. If we can show that Asian elephants will avoid these honey bees then we could have the first jigsaw piece of data that will help us decide if beehive fences may be an appropriate elephant deterrent method for Sri Lankan farmers, and indeed the rest of Asia.
In order to assess this complex question, I spent a month in Uda Walawe NP with Dr. de Silva’s wonderful field assistants, Sameera and Kumara, and her PhD student, Mickey Pardo who has been working with the team to better understand elephant communication. We spent 4 weeks together driving around the park for up to 8 hours a day trying to find elephants in the best location – that is resting under trees in family or bull groups and playing back a recording of Apis cerana indica bees! It was a fascinating and challenging month enabling me to really to get to know more about Asian elephants for the first time. They have a number of novel behaviours that I have not seen in our African elephants – some of them most amusing! One funny incident I will remember for a long time is that they like to whack their tail against trees making a kind of “drumming” sound. I can’t imagine that there is any biological need for this so we suspect that it is purely for fun! One female seemed particularly musical with her tail whacking it forward and back against a tree trunk as she fed in a kind of musical pattern that seemed to be very satisfying to her. There was no response from the other elephants so I don’t think there was any alarm or message contained in the behaviour, it was just to make a nice noise with her tail! I also observed different feeding techniques from the elephants, and learnt that our strong matriarchal elephant society in Kenya is not nearly so defined in Shermin’s study population.
I really enjoyed my month there and was really touched by the warmth and welcome of the Sri Lankan people both in and around Uda Walawe National Park but also in all my interactions with people between my time in Colombo and travelling around the island. I am looking forward to analysing my data and trying to piece together another piece of the jigsaw on our journey to understand how elephants react to honey bees.