South Africa is facing what in my mind seems to be a very positive problem: there are too many elephants in protected areas throughout the country.
Whereas elephant populations are in decline in many other African countries (e.g. east Africa) as a result of poaching and the illegal ivory trade, elephant densities are steadily increasing in confined protected areas throughout South Africa.
As a result of the naturally destructive impact of elephants on vegetation (due to their size and vast dietary requirements), increasing elephant densities have caused marked ecosystem changes and posed serious threats to ecosystem health and biodiversity. Specifically, booming elephant densities have caused a decline in large tree populations, raising concerns about possible cascade effects for mammal and bird species that rely on large trees for nesting and foraging sites.
In addition to biodiversity losses, growing elephant numbers have also provoked increased rates of human-elephant conflict in areas where elephant ranges overlap with human settlements. Examples of such conflict typically include elephant crop-raiding and property destruction, both of which may lead to lethal management of problem animals. So, conservation experts and park managers throughout South Africa have been forced to grapple with what they commonly refer to as “the Elephant Problem.” How can growing elephant populations be managed? How can human-elephant conflict be mitigated? How can we protect the landscape, large tree species in particular, from over-utilization by elephants? Should culling be re-implemented on a large scale in parks like the Kruger? My goal is to help answer these types of questions.
Alternative management strategies
My main research purpose whilst in South Africa will be to investigate alternative management strategies for African elephants in and around the Kruger Park. More specifically, I will be evaluating the viability of using African honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) as ‘eco-deterrents’ against elephants in localities where they are considered ‘damage causing.’ You might be wondering how something as small as a bee could have any effect on elephant behavior. My answer to you would be: African honeybees know how to “hit ‘em where it hurts.” Bees sting elephants in their trunks, eyes, and on their sensitive underbellies. Because of this, elephants that have previously encountered bees are thought to harbor a “fear” of these territorial insects. Dr. Lucy King proposed using this knowledge to design a deterrent strategy for elephants in/around protected areas in Kenya (check out her work: http://elephantsandbees.com/). Now I want to test the same theory in South Africa.
Basically, I will be translocating bees from areas within the Kruger (important to note that I will NOT be bringing any bees in from outside the park, as everybody is currently on high alert about American foul brood disease, which is killing bees in huge numbers throughout the Western Cape) and setting up hives around several watering holes in the southern section of the Park. Managers are talking about closing these watering holes anyway as a means of strengthening density dependence in elephant populations and forcing a natural die-off, so I will just be jumping on the bandwagon and using these holes as my research sites before they are destroyed.
Thus far, we have been using camera traps and dung counts at the water points to determine baseline usage of each water source by elephants. Now, we face the unique challenge of moving bees to our experimental sites, which we must do in the dead of night to avoid inciting an attack by the insects. Once bees are mounted at the watering holes, we will evaluate the responses of elephants to our treatments, using both camera traps and live observation (think of me camped out in my car watching elephants approach the watering hole at all hours of the day and night). Sometimes I am lucky enough to have visitors like this wild dog or leopard…
We want to know whether the presence of beehives will have an effect on elephant behavior: will the beehives change the frequency of elephant utilization of a watering hole? Will we see a change in demographics of elephant visitors, with fewer breeding herds approaching for fear of calves getting stung?
Or perhaps, will elephants avoid the hole entirely if bees are present? Answering these questions will allow us to ascertain whether bees represent a viable management tool for elephants in/around National Parks in South Africa.
If beehives prove effective as elephant deterrents in our trials, the potential benefits to stakeholders extend beyond the Kruger National Park. We also intend to apply our findings to the development of a community-based conservation project for the management of elephants in areas bordering South African protected areas. The implementation of this project could provide local community members and farmers with an affordable and effective strategy for deterring crop-raiding elephants, which will ideally aid long-term efforts aimed at the mitigation of human-elephant conflict surrounding protected areas supporting elephants.
Beyond crop protection, this particular deterrent strategy could also provide economic benefits for local people, as the honey from the hives can be harvested and sold at market. And further still, if people are using bees to deter elephants from going places we don’t want them to go and doing things we don’t want them to do, then we don’t have to kill them! Basically, a “win-win” for everybody involved, even the elephants.
Disclosure statement: Emma Devereux’s project is funded by the Phoenix Zoo Conservation and Science Grant program and the Explorer’s Club of North America Youth Activity Fund