Beehive fences protect farms from foraging elephants in Tanzania
Southern Tanzania is home to over half of East Africa’s elephants making it a globally important region for their conservation. Unfortunately, abrupt boundaries between protected areas and farmland mean elephants easily wander into village farms and eat or trample human food crops or both. Crop losses attributed to elephants can threaten the livelihoods of rural and small-scale farmers through financial losses and reduced food security. In turn, elephants are threatened by retaliatory or sanctioned ‘problem animal control’ killing.
Finding ways to help elephant and people coexist is one of the key challenges for conservationists, governments, and communities living with elephants. We at the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program (STEP) in partnership with local farmers and an international team of researchers have searched for nonlethal, effective and sustainable ways to protect farms from elephants. As part of these efforts, we trialed the use of beehive fences to reduce elephant visits to a small area of farmland adjacent to the Udzungwa Mountains National Park in southern Tanzania. The results of this study have now been published in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation
We first learned about beehive fences from the work of Dr. Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees project in Kenya, where King documented elephants to have an instinctive fear of bees and to avoid feeding on trees with bee colonies. Elephants even have distinct alarm calls to alert each other about bees. Dr. King’s successful trials of using beehive fences to keep elephants at bay and protect farms in southern Kenya inspired us to trial the method in Tanzania in partnership with local farmers in an area of farmland experiencing frequent elephant foraging visits.
Whereas in Kenya, each individual farmer encircles his or her farm with beehives, in our study area, where over 100 small farms lie in close proximity, farmers decided that this was impractical. So instead, we constructed a single linear fence along the Park boundary to block major elephant entry-ways into farms from the forested mountains.
We found that the beehive fence reduced the probability of elephants visiting farms by half. We also found that the fence became more effective when it was extended from 500m to 1km, probably because we were able to block more elephant pathways into farmland and it became more costly (in terms of time and risk) for elephants to walk around the fence. The efficacy of the fence as an elephant barrier also improved as the number of beehives occupied by bees increased over time, and elephants generally did not attempt to breach the fence between two occupied hives.
One unexpected result of our research was that the number of farms damaged during a single elephant visit increased slightly after the beehive fence was built. We think this may happen when elephants are searching for a safe way out of farms after breaching or circumnavigating the fence. Several ways of addressing this in the future include more diligent fixing of fence gaps, extending the fence further, and improving hive occupancy.
Importantly, from the outset, the beehive fence was a communal project. The Park ecologist at the time and our team closely consulted with farmers. Farmers registered a Community-Based Organization (known as Njokomoni Farmers Group) with their District Government, giving them an official structure for managing the beehive fence. The farmers harvest honey from the beehives and invest money made from honey sales into a group fund for upkeep of the fence and other income-generating activities, before profit is shared among members. We supported the farmers’ group in undertaking beekeeping skills training and assisted them in branding and selling their honey to increase their honey yields and profit margin.
After our positive experiences in Udzungwa, we are expanding our partnerships with farmers’ cooperatives in four other villages affected by elephants in the region. We are applying important lessons learned from our first fence including:
- Beehive fence design: we found that linear fences are most effective when they block well-used elephant pathways into farmland, so it is valuable to survey and map elephant routes before fence construction to decide on optimal fence length and placement (we have more tips for fence design on our website).
- Capacity building: it is essential that farmers receive training and develop capacity to care for beehive fences effectively including to produce high-quality honey that can be marketed to tourists at a premium price.
- Monitoring: to manage beehive fences well and to evaluate their impact, we work closely with farmers and local elephant monitors to record beehive occupancy, fence condition and honey harvests and sales, as well as elephants’ breaches of beehive fences and crop damage frequency and extent.
For more information about beehive fences and STEP’s elephant conservation efforts in southern Tanzania, visit www.stzelephants.org/projects/human-elephants-co-existence.
Image captions and credits:
- The beehive fence adjacent to Udzungwa Mountains National Park. Credit: Paulo Mndeme (STEP)
- Ahmed Churi – a farmer, schoolteacher and beekeeper who advises the farmers’ co-operative – adjusts the wire on a beehive. Credit: Paulo Mndeme (STEP)
- Camera-trap photo of a young elephant bull near the beehive fence in Udzungwa. Credit: STEP.
- Map of the location of STEP’s beehive fence projects in Tanzania. Credit: Solomon Sembosi (STEP)