Bees are Helping Thailand’s Elephants and Farmers to Peacefully Coexist – Bee Fences in Asia Part 2

A new study brings hope for reducing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Thailand

Guest post by Antoinette van de Water

Beehive fences in Thailand. Photo: BTEH

Kaeng Hang Maeo district in Eastern Thailand is in an area of high human-elephant conflict. A herd of about 70–80 elephants lives between the protected areas and agricultural land, causing damage to crops almost on a nightly basis. Over four years ago, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station started a joint project to evaluate the effectiveness of beehive fences in deterring Asian elephants, under supervision of Dr. Lucy King. We set up a pilot beehive fence around a subsistence farm surrounded by elephant habitat and installed camera-traps to record the elephants’ reactions to the bees, which belong the species Apis mellifera, or European honeybee.

Elephants at the fences. Photo: BTEH

The first camera trap video we captured showed a small herd of elephants breaking through the newly installed fence. Since then, the team made several adjustments to improve the effectiveness: increasing the bee population, reducing the distance between the hives, and a low-cost trigger mechanism, which opens the hives to activate dormant bees when elephants try to break through the fence.

After spending many nights observing videos, we decided to set up a team of citizen scientists to help analyze videos. The results indicated that over 60% of the elephant groups and over 88% of the individual elephants were deterred by the beehive fence. The elephants that came close to the beehive fence showed typical signs of increased alertness and uncertainty and often slowly backed away. The farm owner reported a strong reduction in crop damage after the beehive fence was installed, as well as additional benefits including the supplemental income, pride, and skills development.

A bull in musth checks out the fence. Photo: BTEH.

We further looked into the local communities’ attitudes towards elephants where the majority of households experienced negative encounters with elephants at least once a week including damage to crops and property. Although most farmers had not gained any benefit from living with elephants, two-thirds of the respondents reported being tolerant towards elephants, if only they would stop causing damage. This initial study indicated the need for solutions that combine elephant damage reduction with benefits for local people.

We always emphasize that beehive fencing is not a stand-alone solution. The method requires significant investment and may not work in every human-elephant conflict context. To maximize impact, beehive fences should be combined with other methods such as habitat restoration, providing access to benefits to local communities and growing crops that are unpalatable to elephants. For instance, the farm owner in this study started growing chilli and lemongrass along the beehive fence as an extra barrier, to attract bees, and as a source of income. After positive feedback from farmers, Bring The Elephant Home launched the Tom Yum project: named after the spicy, healthy Thai soup of which the ingredients (chilli, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, onion, coriander) are not attractive to elephants. Like beehive fences, the Tom Yum project helps to diversify local livelihoods, create employment, and promote human-elephant coexistence.

Tom Yum participants. Photo: BTEH.

Working on these positive projects provided a unique opportunity to learn about the complexity of HEC, fostering connections across the world, thus strengthening awareness and cooperation. It stimulated out of the box thinking, empowered farmers and showed potential ways forward to realize peaceful coexistence.

This study was a collaboration of Bring The Elephant Home Foundation, the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station, Project Dragonfly of Miami University, the Future for Nature Academy, the Elephants and Bees Project of Save the Elephants and global citizen scientists.

Check out the BTEH website for more photos and video of the beehive fence project: https://bring-the-elephant-home.org/project/bee-the-change/

Editor’s Note: One of the important differences between this initiative and others in Asia is the use of non-native European honeybees rather than the native Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. The native honey bee is in decline in parts of Asia, and the potential risk of invasion by non-native bees is unknown, requiring further study.

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REFERENCE

van de Water, A., King, L. E., Arkajak, R., Arkajak, J., van Doormaal, N., Ceccarelli, V., … & Matteson, K. (2020). Beehive fences as a sustainable local solution to human‐elephant conflict in Thailand. Conservation Science and Practice2(10), e260. [Full Text]

When farmers and elephants compete for space

By Lena Coker

These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.

In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence. Continue reading

Can Incense Sticks Help Protect Crops from Elephants?

By Salik Ansar

Pradeep’s father along with Pradeep’s wife and daughter, welcoming us to their farm.

Almost every other day we read about some “human-elephant” conflict in the local Sri Lankan newspapers. Some claimed that 2019 has seen the most deaths of elephants, due to human elephant conflicts. The government resorted to the dubious strategy of handing out guns to the Civil Defense Force and wildlife officers in order to control the problem. Through-out the passage of time, humanity has never been great at making moral judgements. Lack of government regulations, rightful laws, proper economical structure and even cultural knowledge, the humans and elephants become victims of this shortfall. Sadly, without proper regulations and monitoring, the human-elephant conflict will only increase in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile conservationists are also busy finding ways to reduce the suffering from either of the two sides – the Elephants or the Humans. Continue reading

Day 3 – Wrapping Up the 2019 Cohort

Lighting the oil lamp at Samagi preschool.

Our first stop was Samagi preschool, where we were pleased to see a very large contingent of parents attending. Together with the teachers, we took turns lighting a tall brass oil lamp, a traditional symbol of good fortune and prosperity in Sri Lanka. We were a bit nervous when they tried to hand the kids a match, but then it was decided it might not be quite such a good idea! Continue reading

Preschools Day 2: Or, how toilets can also be bridges!

New slide at Nirmala Sigithi preschool.

The second day we were accompanied by a hard-working (and long-suffering) wildlife officer named Naveen. Not only was it an opportunity for us to meet the parents, but it was a rare chance for dialogue between the community and wildlife personnel, with whom there tends to be a strained relationship in areas where there are conflicts with elephants. Continue reading

Coexistence Project Preschools: Day 1

Merry-go-round

Children dressed in their finery for the year-end school concert at Chuti Tharu preschool go for a spin on the merry-go-round sponsored by the Coexistence Project.

We supported 12 pre-schools in 2019 as part of the Coexistence Project thanks to contributions from individual sponsors and the US Fish & Wildlife Asian elephant conservation funds. We visited each of the schools toward the end of the year to take stock of what was done and meet the parents of the children. We were also invited to attend the school play and other festivities, where we distributed small packs of school supplies for the kids.

The teachers universally appreciated that we had asked them to decide what was most needed in their pre-schools rather than doing so our ourselves, and the smooth process for receiving the assistance they had been promised. A series of posts this week and next provide a run-down of the improvements made at each school and our experiences at them; photos were taken with their permission to post. Continue reading

Why We Study The Asian Elephant

Guest post by Drs. Priya Davidar & Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sigur Nature Trust
All photos courtesy of Drs. Davidar & Puyravaud

During the 2017 drought in Tamil Nadu, up to 25 elephants per day were coming to drink water in our water tank.

We were trained as plant ecologists but have made the decision of venturing into research on the Asian elephant. The reasons are two-fold: first, we have a lot of respect and affection for this animal, second is our concern about the demonization of the elephant by the media where it is held responsible for intentionally causing ‘conflicts’ that harm human interests and cause loss of human lives (1). Although the destruction of its habitat, increasing human density and expansion into forest areas are routinely mentioned in most publications, interventions to arrest the loss of habitat and population connectivity is rarely considered a mitigation issue. The human-elephant ‘conflict’ (HEC) mitigation however is given a high priority for funding agencies and research (2,3), although its not clear how successful these efforts have been. Our ultimate reason to get involved in conservation biology however is somehow self-centered. If people don’t learn now to live in harmony with nature, including elephants, then our civilization will alter the biosphere to such an extent that humanity itself will suffer. To us, this is an unacceptable but possible outcome that we attempt to fight. Continue reading

Militant exploitation vs. militant conservation – how far will this go?

By SdS

Protecting nature can be dangerous and messy. Two recent reports bring to light what seem to be flipsides of the same coin. On one side are those who heroically fight and even lose their lives defending their homes, wild places, and wild animals. Then there are those who take lives, for the same purpose. August 12th is World Elephant Day. Normally, I would say something about elephants. But I already did that in the last post. So today I want to reflect on the people who protect wildlife, in one way or another.

It’s been on my mind a long time, but particularly since a conference I attended a few years ago. It was supposed to be an academic conference, but the audience was a mix of scientists, conservation practitioners and activists. Alongside the sessions people would huddle around in their little cliques, chatting about the state of affairs on the ground. Some of the conversations were depressing, there was no hiding it. Here we were free to speak truth out loud, in an atmosphere of urgency that everyone present acknowledged. I had a palpable sense that some (perhaps even many) of those present acted as though we were at war. It was a mindset that people stewing in, breathing in, day in and day out. I imagined that this was not unlike how reporters felt, who had spent too long embedded in war zones – a creeping feeling that far from the comfortable lives that most of our colleagues and acquaintances led, an epic battle was raging. Continue reading

The Patels Visit Udawalawe

Guest post by Yogi & Nikita Patel

We traveled to Sri Lanka to work with Trunks & Leaves in support of schools surrounding the Udawalawe National Park. We first arrived in Negombo, Sri Lanka where we were met by Deepani, who works with Trunks & Leaves, and her friend Jocelyn. We traveled by car to Udawalawe where we were joined by Sameera, the project coordinator. We visited the first Montessori preschool, operated by Sameera’s sister, Chathurika. She was gracious in showing us the school, which was closed for the holidays. She had been hard at work painting furniture and cleaning the classroom and play area for her 18 students. Her school, which is attached to her home, is surrounded by many fruit trees. Her family members supported her passion for educating children in her town.

Our next stop was school teacher Shiromi’s home. We met with Shiromi who greeted us with her family and offered the most amazing homecooked treats. We chatted about her work in the village and her school, Dimuthu preschool. We met with Shiromi again the following day, where we observed the children in her classroom. The parents were very supportive of Shiromi and came to the school with their children even though they were supposed to be on holiday. We got to sing and dance the “hokey pokey”.

Deepani, Yogi and Sameera with the first cohort of preschool teachers whose schools received support from Trunks & Leaves’ sponsors (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

Continue reading