Elephants And Bees
Farmers in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand are being trained to make “bee fences” by stringing up hives on poles around ten meters apart. A strong wire connecting the poles would cause them to swing when an elephant walks into it, disturbing the bees
Every child has heard stories that elephants are afraid of mice, but scientists have now discovered that elephants are truly afraid of bees—and that the pachyderms even sound an alarm when they encounter them. They are the largest beasts alive on land today, yet these giants flee when they hear the buzz of a bee swarm. This new discovery can help save elephants, farmers’ crops and humans. Scientists had always suspected that elephants prefer to steer clear of bees. In Kenya, observers noticed that elephants damaged acacia trees with empty or occupied beehives significantly less than trees without hives. In Zimbabwe, researchers saw elephants forging new trails in order to avoid beehives. Even in India, it was observed in many areas inhabited with wild elephants, that they steer clear of beehives. This scientifically established fear is now being used to help protect them.
Man animal conflict breeds intolerance and people, many of whom are already struggling to subsist, grow tired and angry over having to maintain constant vigilance to prevent elephants from destroying an entire year’s worth of crops in a single night. Among the many methods used to scare elephants away from crops and human habitations are by trumpeting drums and bursting crackers. Other methods include burning a mix of pungent chillies, tobacco and dung or grass on the edge of the fields. Burning chillies and tobacco are major irritants for elephants. Their trunks are very sensitive to these smells and if they sense these odours, they avoid the area. In the Tikarpara forests of Odisha, villagers put up strings of used CD’s and shine torches on them. The high reflection from the CD surface scares away elephants. Similarly, stacks of harvested crops are protected by fencing them with ropes coated with the chilli-tobacco paste.
As of 2013, Asia’s elephant population has experienced a 90 per cent decline in the past 100 years and a rough calculation suggests that as much as 95 per cent of the original habitat has been lost over the same period. The rise in human-elephant conflict has been the result of the rapid rise of the human population in India. This small elephant population is further fragmented with fewer than 100 individuals living in any one contiguous area. This habitat is also shrinking rapidly and wild elephant populations are presently living in mostly small, isolated patches, unable to socialise as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.
The increasing trend of elephant-human conflict is resulting in rising number of deaths for both and has alarmed conservationists. In Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand, the elephant is losing ground with dozens of them falling prey to poaching. They are poisoned, electrocuted, trapped or simply shot by poachers and affected villagers. Experts consider such confrontations to be the leading cause of elephant deaths in Asia.
A single hungry elephant can wipe out a family’s crops overnight. Farmers will huddle by fires all night during the harvest season. When an elephant nears, the farmers spring up with flaming sticks while their children bang on pots and pans. Not all fields can be guarded, and sometimes the elephants aren’t frightened off.
Strategically placed beehives serve as low-tech elephant deterrents and reduce conflicts between man and beast that often lead to the pachyderms being killed. When villagers in Jharkhand and Odisha were first told of the idea to keep beehives, they disbelieved, as it seems so improbable that such a large, powerful creature like an elephant could possibly be afraid of tiny bees. Still, the fact is known that the sting of a bee is absolute agony to humans, and even though the elephant is thick skinned enough to bear the onslaught, when stung in the sensitive areas around the eyes, behind the ears and even up the trunk, it is extremely painful for the elephant too.
Gajapatis On The Decline
In Odisha, the kings of yesteryears were addressed as ‘Gajapatis’. There were dynasties named after them, and the present Maharaja of Puri, the principal servitor of Lord Jagannath too is addressed as Gajapati. The thick jungles of Odisha, which used to teem with elephants, are now fast turning into a graveyard for them with nearly 400 jumbos dying in the past five years.
Electrocution, both accidental and intentional has been identified as the major cause of elephant deaths in the state. At least 116 elephants were electrocuted in the state in the last decade. While 46 of them were found to be deliberately killed wires hung from transmission lines, 70 others died accidentally by coming into contact with low hanging live electric cables. At least seven elephants were run over by trains while 16 more were killed in various other accidents.
The lack of co-ordination between the Forest and the Energy Departments is largely responsible for the large-scale jumbo electrocution. Last year the energy minister had claimed that “it was the responsibility of the Forest and Environment Department to regularly inform the Energy Department about the elephant routes.” The Forest and Environment Department has lodged cases against electrical engineers holding them responsible for the deaths.
While the government dispels fears of elephants vanishing from Odisha, arguing birth of elephant calves outstripped the number of deaths. There is also inter-state migration, mainly from Jharkhand, at least 25 elephants have moved into Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts of Odisha from other states because of the presence of dense forest. This apart, the tusker ratio in comparison with female elephants in Odisha is the best in the country, leading to better growth rate of the animal.
Conservationists however spell the doom for the elephant in the state.
The loss of habitat, diversion of forest land, increasing frequency of trains, irrigation projects, rise in electricity connections, changing demographic patterns in and around forests and irrational allocation of land for mining are major threats to elephants. Poaching for ivory too is a major reason for the high casualty rate.
While people blame forest personnel for elephant deaths, officials blame the serious manpower shortage. Forty per cent of the sanctioned posts are lying vacant. Moreover, poachers nowadays are equipped with latest weapons, much better than that of the forest guards.
Wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty says “Odisha’s elephant population will be severely threatened as mega bauxite and iron ore mines and metal industries are coming up in the proposed elephant reserve areas.”
Farmers in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand are being trained to make “bee fences” by stringing up hives on poles around ten meters apart. A strong wire connecting the poles would cause them to swing when an elephant walks into it, disturbing the bees. The swarm bothers elephants so much that they flee, emitting low rumblings inaudible to the human ear that warn other elephants nearby. According to forest officials, an elephant which suffers bee attack once will not visit that particular region again. The scheme has been put in place since the last three years in the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve in northern Karnataka, and has begun to bear results. Farmers from 35 villages who participated in the project say that elephants have not raided their fields ever since they started implementing these measures. The main reason why elephants raid human habitat is lack of food and water in forests. But a beehive fence would ensure that elephant don’t enter man’s land.
The government is implementing a scheme to provide financial assistance to farmers to buy bees and their hives. Officials feel this is a safe and eco-friendly method and it causes no permanent harm to the elephant. Besides, farmers can also make extra income from the honey. It’s actually a win- win situation both for man and beast. A traditional bee box provided by the government is expensive at Rs 2,500 per box, so farmers have come up with a cheaper alternative. They put up simple earthen pots coated with bees wax on the edges of their fields. After some time, some were colonised by bees.Once farmers are able to protect their crops, they are not hostile to elephants nor do they indulge in retaliatory attacks. In fact, farmers do not need protection from raiding herds throughout the year. It is only when the crops are ripening or have been freshly harvested that the elephants pose a threat.
Elephants are the smartest animals in nature. The crop-raiding behavior is learned and is passed down through generations—often by older males to younger ones. Elephants can teach each other, perhaps there is a way humans can modify elephant behavior through a bit of basic Pavlovian conditioning.
Repairing the relationship between farmers and elephants is paramount. Elephants must be able to eat and wander without being killed; farmers must be able to farm without fear of elephants. The best solutions are those that are safe, affordable and sustainable. Even better are those that allow farmers to profit while maintaining a positive relationship with the elephants as in the honey and chili pepper trade.
By Anil Dhir