Is it possible to farm in peace with elephants?


By Nan Smith | 20 June 2017
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Africanfarming.com has had a few calls for help from farmers desperate to stop elephants from cutting destructive swathes through their crop lands.

What to do about “problem animals” is a question as old as farming itself. Farmers are the people of the African plains and forests and elephants are the largest mammals of those same areas. So maybe it’s time to take a longer view and look at our wildlife as a resource as precious as any other.

That doesn’t mean there is no space for short- and medium-term answers to immediate problems. Life, and survival, is essentially bound up in the intake of food and the energy it supplies to maintain a healthy body.

As with humans, so with animals. In their endless quest for food, elephant will take whatever handy supplies come their way. The easier the food is to access, the less energy they waste, and the more energy they have for other important activities.

A keystone species of the African Savannah, elephant move across the landscape clearing bush, making space for grass to spread and forming pathways for other animals. Through their dung, they spread seed.

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Elephant damage in a sugar cane field on the farm of Lucas Labaran near the Kimisi Game Reserve in Tanzania.

Charismatic and mysterious, elephants are a major tourist attraction and tourists bring revenue into the country. This is a good thing, and a welcome and consistent source of income for Africa, a continent which boasts animals seen nowhere else on earth.

Unfortunately, at least 75% of Africa’s elephants live outside reserves. As human populations grow, the competition between farmers and animals gets a lot more hostile than it was in any previous lifetime. A hectare of sugarcane or maize is a delicious meal for an elephant, an animal that can eat an impressive 450 kg of herbage a day.

The result of elephant crop-raiding expeditions can mean a significant loss of income for a small-scale farmer. Worse still, subsistence farmers can lose the food their families were to live on during the coming dry season.

Some governments, notably Botswana, pay compensation to these farmers.

LOCATION AND TRADITION

The right site for the farm should be a farmer’s number one consideration. Accept that there must be some land-use sharing between man and beast.

Be sensible, do the reconnaissance and plant your crops out of harm’s way.

There is nothing wrong with the traditional, low-tech, methods of beating drums and blowing smoke, in the direction of the advancing elephant. If it works, do it.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) offers a toolkit of solutions for small-scale African farmers who engage with elephant.

Rene Czudek, scientist working on the toolkit says: “for an elephant raiding crops, we have different kinds of tools and one of them is to make chili. You grow the chili, you mix it with some elephant dung, then you light it with charcoal and this burning brick will smell bad for the elephants. Since they don’t like chili pepper they will avoid the field.”

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There are a few basic tricks that can be used to scare of elephants. They don’t like certain sounds and smells.

Zimbabwean farmers use plastic guns that fire ping pong balls filled with chili powder from 50 m.
An organisation called Connected Conservation suggests planting a barrier of hot chilis.

Electrified elephant-proof fences also work to an extent but they will not stand against a determined elephant, indefinitely. They are also expensive and need constant maintenance.

A SWEET SOLUTION

The simple act of paying attention led to a discovery that elephants are afraid of bees. African bees are not a tolerant lot, and disturbed, swarming bees are quite capable of killing a man. While they won’t kill the elephant, repeated stinging attacks inside their sensitive trunks is not an experience the ellies want to go through twice.

One video showed that even the noise of bees will cause the animals to move on. However, once they work out that the noise has no backup, this trick will not work.

Scientists worked out a simple plan to check the effectiveness of using bees to keep elephants out of crop fields. They placed beehives on wooden posts, 10m apart, along a single wire strand and waited for the elephant. Predictably, a thump on the wire disturbed the hives and a bunch of angry bees scared the elephants away.

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Lucas Labaran is checking out the dung of an elephant that damaged his sugar cane. Some farmers mix the elephant’s dung with chilli and then lights the mixture with a match to burn it to scare off elephants.

A zoologist called Dr. Lucy King has been the prime mover and shaker behind the bee fence concept and heads up the Elephants and Bees Project (EBP) that helps farmers erect beehive fencing around crop fields.

According to King, beehive fences have an 80% success rate. Cheap to build, they cost US$100 to US$500 per 100 m. The bees generate an income for the farmer as EBP buys the raw honey “at a generous price”, its website explains.

Wildlife vet, Dr. Hayley Adams, is working to build a beehive fence in Tanzania. Adams sums up the possibilities: “Often rural communities resent the wildlife around them because don’t understand why it’s of value. If they can make money by selling honey, that could make a big difference.”

“It has a ripple effect — if you install a bee fence on one farm, pretty soon a neighbour hears about it and wants one, too.”