Monday, September 10, 2012

Elephant Problems and Solutions

Elephants and humans compete for many of the same resources, and for years now the competition has been fierce, with the humans “winning” most of the time. I enclose winning in quotes because of course the victory is a tainted one.

Last year, when we took our granddaughters (and their parents) to Kenya we saw the results of one such conflict at the elephant orphanage outside Nairobi. 
A tiny calf, no more than a week old had been rescued in the Imenti forest a scant three kilometres from our old home in Meru. His mother had been killed in what was termed “Human wildlife conflict.”

My own direct involvement with the war, for that is what it is, goes back 37 years to Rwanda, where elephants had started to kill people and destroy their homes. At the time this was the most densely populated country in Africa. Peasant farmers, scratching a living on their small plots by growing some maize, matooke, beans or other crops would wake up in the morning to find the entire year’s supply of food for the family had been wiped out. An adult elephant needs tons of food every day, and those crops would have been a perfect source of readily available groceries.

The solution, at the time, was to cull the entire Rwandan population of what was certainly viewed as a major predator. I got involved when President Habyarimana persuaded the African Wildlife Foundation that monies they wanted for the gorilla project should instead be used to save human lives. At first all the elephants were to be destroyed, but then it was decided, for political reasons, that an effort should be made to save the younger animals and translocate them to a national park.

Several people who have read my account of the project in WrestlingWith Rhinos, during which we moved twenty-seven young elephants to the Akagera National Park  have quizzed me on why we did not drive all the animals to the park. Short answer – Mission Impossible. The herds were in small family units and widely dispersed; they would have had to move through hundreds of small farms and plantations and would have destroyed everything in their paths, crops, buildings, vehicles and of course people. 

The Rwandan skirmish was but one chapter in a conflict that has gone on for at least a hundred years, and perhaps much longer. It continues today, and not just in Africa. Elephants and people in India and their close cousins in South Asian countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Borneo and others are under similar pressures.

Several solutions have been tried. Desperate famers in India and Indonesia have tried to drive the huge beasts away with fire. That is, at best, a temporary measure and fraught with risk for the people. Fire baskets run back and forth on overhead wires work for a while to keep the marauders out. With illegal logging and massive development of palm oil plantations crushing the hungry giants into ever-smaller areas the famers and the elephants are losing ground.

Moorlands at 13,000 ft. Mt. Kenya from the north
The peaks from the forest edge
Kenya’s northern agricultural area around Mt. Kenya, the Aberdare Mountains and the grasslands of Laikipia at least two attempted methods have ended in failure.
Wide, brush-covered ditches were dug at the Aberdare forest edges, where farms come right up to the trees. They worked for a while as the elephants were fearful of stepping on the brush when they could not see what lay beneath. Once the huge job of maintenance declined the elephants figured it all out, and were back into the maize and other goodies.

As elephant numbers increased on the open plains attempts were made to drive them back with helicopters and flash guns. This also failed as the elephants soon returned and took no notice of repeated attempts to drive them. Some elephants were captured in family groups and translocated. 

We even saw some of them in their new home in Meru National Park, our favourite among all the parks of Kenya. 

This was fine and dandy, but one cannot capture elephants that hang out in the forests.  Too bushy, too difficult, too dangerous.

Two modern solutions have been developed. One is ideal for the individual small holder and particularly applies to families living outside the forests. This is very definitely a case of “thinking outside the box.” Of course this is a cliché, but it is also a pun.

The box in this case is a beehive. Zoologist Dr. Lucy King, working in Kenya, figured it out. Rural Kenyans, particularly the Ndorobo, are avid honey eaters, and they make hives for wild bees from hollowed out logs.

One thing that elephants do not like is bees.  If African bees are disturbed they are likely to swarm and attack. The elephant skin is probably impervious to the stings, but around the eyes, and especially inside the very sensitive trunk, bee stings obviously hurt.  One semi-tame bull elephant was described as “going berserk” when stung there. They may not get ‘bees in their bonnets’, but ‘up the trunk’ obviously does the trick.

Dr. King has taken these two facts and writes about her research in her own website

The ‘outside the box’ idea was to use actual beehives as part of a crop-protection fence after Lucy and her supervisor found that elephants could even be driven off if they heard the sound of buzzing bees.

As you can see in this photo that Lucy took, and has released to the media, farmers can construct a fence that has beehives strung on wires every few metres around their plots of crops.  Any touch of the wires by an elephant (or a careless human) will set the wires a-twanging, and the hives a-swinging. Ouch!

While the technique is not 100% effective it has helped reduce elephant incursions considerably.  The by-product is delicious honey that the farmers can sell.

While this elegant solution will work most of the time for a number of smallholders it is obviously not practical for the hundreds of kilometres of forest boundary around the two massifs of Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares.

Corner construct on the Aberdares
This electrified fence around the Aberdares was completed in August 2009, twenty years after the first posts were driven. It was done at enormous (but unstated) cost, all funded through the charitable trust Rhino Ark whose byline is Humans in Harmony with Habitat and Wildlife. The trust describes the fence as “an ecosystem conservation tool.” You can read some fascinating detail about it at their website. A couple of things that caught my eye were that much of the labour was done by local folks and at least a hundred scouts patrol the fence on a regular basis.

Kazita river gorge. Mt. Kenya
With that fence all done and dusted, the next project, as reported on the BBCwebsite is a similar structure on Mt. Kenya. It will run for at least 400 km across many river valleys and take an estimated 5 years to complete and current cost estimates are $11.8 million. Here are a couple of pics that illustrate the density & complexity involved.
Trout fishing on the Kazita river above Meru

The elephants will not be completely cut off from their traditional migrations. One corridor has been constructed on the north side of Mt. Kenya that allows them to migrate up and down the slopes. They can start in the world-famous Lewa Conservancy and move up through the corridor that lies on land donated by our friends the Murrays at Marania farm into their high-altitude homes. There is a downloadable map here  

The rose bed at Marania, before the elephant arrived
The fences, also electrified, work most of the time although last year the family had a bit of a scare when one old and very wise bull found his way outside the constraints of the wire. We saw the evidence of his nighttime passage a couple of days later as enormous footprints indenting the lawn.

Bongo bull at the Mount Kenya Game Ranch
It is not just elephants that will be controlled by the fence. Several other species live both in the forest and on the wide-open moorlands above the tree-line. I have seen buffalo, waterbuck, zebra and lions up there even at altitudes above 12,000 feet (3600 metres). There were once rhino both in and above the forest and the most striking of  all forest antelopes, the bongo, used to live on both mountains, although no wild ones have been seen for many years.

There is one other species that will at least be deterred. Humans will not be so ready to cross into the forest for poaching activities or for firewood.


Diane said...

Interesting post I really enjoyed reading this. Lots of good information. The end result is hopefully what we need, save the animals and deter the poachers. Diane

Brianna said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I love the informative nature of it without it being dry. My heart goes out to the animals affected... In the past I have made some small efforts to save animals all over the world, but they are nothing compared to what you are doing. Thank you for being the light that shines on this problem!

Jerry Haigh said...

Good to hear your thoughts, both of you. Please feel free to share the post with your Facebook, Twitter or other Internet friends