Elephants don’t like the disco!

Jul 3, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Tempe Adams – Research coordinator for Botswana-based wildlife NGO Elephants Without Borders (EWB)

Conservationists and rural farmers in Africa are constantly trying to find new ways to help protect farms from elephants that like to eat crops. In Botswana, the NGO Elephants Without Borders is leading efforts to implement green technology to ward off elephants from fields, thereby increasing food security and fostering a culture of coexistence for people living alongside elephants. With almost 130,000 individuals, Botswana is home to the world’s largest elephant population. Here, these animals compete with a growing human population for food, land and scarce water resources.

A rare daytime sighting of a herd of elephants drinking from a waterhole, located alongside an abandoned field in Kavimba village, Chobe Enclave.

We conducted our study in the Chobe Enclave in northern Botswana, where several rural communities live along the banks of the Chobe River, their farming fields situated next to its fertile floodplains. Surrounded by the protected areas of Chobe National Park and Chobe Forest Reserve, the Enclave hosts an elephant population of c. 7,500. Unsurprisingly, it is considered a hotspot for negative human–wildlife interactions in the country. Elephant Without Borders’ movement data from satellite-collared elephants show that elephants pass through these communal farming areas primarily at night to access the river and fertile grasses of the floodplains. When elephants travel through this area they can cause damage to farmers’ property and crops while also intimidating people.

An example of maize that has been damaged by elephants entering a field at night.

In these cases, wildlife can become habituated to traditional mitigation techniques. This is why research into the mitigation of negative human–wildlife interactions is so important. Traditional mitigation techniques including banging on barrels to create loud noise, using guard dogs, lighting fires, laying down chili pepper bricks, and putting up bee fences, unfortunately have been largely ineffective in the Chobe Enclave. Thus, using scientific methodology combined with farmers’ traditional knowledge and experiences is vital to keep conflict mitigation robust, and to adapt and evolve solutions, no matter how bizarre the resulting tools may seem.

Strobe lights set up in a line.

Farmers in the Chobe Enclave reported having effectively scared elephants away from their fields at night by quickly flashing torches on and off. The idea of flashing lights sparked our interest in exploring this further. Flashing lights have been established as an effective tool to reduce predator attacks on livestock in and around kraals and bomas (overnight enclosures), but to our knowledge this technique had not been formally tested on elephants. After discussion with the farmers, we decided it was worth a try.

Whereas bomas are usually small and delineated, fields can be fairly large and unprotected by fences. Given this, we wanted to make the flashing lights have the appearance of a barrier to any approaching elephants. We strategically placed the lights at intervals in a single line along the side of the field that farmers had previously seen elephants enter from.

A close-up of a solar-powered strobe light and a diagram showing an example of where the solar-strobe light barrier is set up in relationship to the crop and elephant corridors.

It is important that mitigation methods are designed to be as adaptable as possible. The solar-powered strobe lights are small, lightweight and each flash a different colour, which gives a disco-like semblance when flashing along the field. We rotated the pattern of the light’s colour on a weekly basis, so it would appear differently to elephants passing through the area. If the elephants attempted to enter the field from a part of the field where there was no barrier, the lights could easily be moved to the new location.

We were able to show that solar-powered strobe light barriers are an effective mitigation technique for deterring elephants from entering crop fields. This pioneering research reduced the amount of damage caused by elephants to the farmers’ crops, showing promising results for improving human–elephant coexistence. There were only two reported incidences of elephants crossing the light barrier, in the first occasion the elephants were being chased by the farmers and were exiting the field through the barrier and in the second report, the lights had fallen down, creating a gap in the barrier effect.Video Player00:0000:10

Our research demonstrates how modern and innovative technology can be successfully applied to solve conservation issues, even in remote areas. The farmers who participated in the study expressed their pleasure with the results of the newly implemented lights.

‘Before I had the lights in my field I had more elephants raid, which made it difficult to have a successful harvest, but in these two seasons with lights I have harvested successfully, we really think the lights work’, Mr Deaconos a farmer from Mabele explained.

Left: A family of farmers posing with their strobe lights. Right: The EWB coexistence team with a participating farmer, posing with the solar-powered strobe barrier with her crop behind.

Elephants Without Borders has since expanded its use of solar powered technology to include motion-detection alarms, poli-wire electric rope and organic natural oil that emits an unpleasant and offensive odor. The NGO’s toolkit, called EleSenses, attempts to offend the elephants’ five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) to deter them from situations that could lead to negative interactions. This toolkit is critical to the survival of these incredible animals and to successful harvests for farmers. The long-term survival of elephants will ultimately depend on improved coexistence between elephants and people.

Visit www.elephantswithoutborder.org for more information on elephant conservation research in Botswana and to find out what you can do to help protect and conserve elephants and their environment.

All photos and video footage: Tempe Adams, Elephants Without Borders

The article Panic at the disco: solar-powered strobe light barriers reduce field incursion by African elephants Loxodonta Africana in Chobe district, Botswana is available in OryxThe International Journal of Conservation.

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