Problem with elephants? Call the beekeeper (Uganda)

Mar 9, 2019 | News

John Okot, The Christian Science Monitor

Not long ago, Santo Okello’s sesame garden was under siege.

The intruders were familiar to him: four elephants, lumbering toward his crops at dusk in search of a tasty snack.  

Until a few years ago, a visit from the elephants, who live in the nearby Murchison Falls National Park, would have meant certain death for Mr. Okello’s carefully tended stalks, his main source of income.

But this time, the pachyderms had barely reached the garden’s perimeter when they abruptly turned and fled, stomping their feet and swinging their trunks as they retreated into the scrubland.  

They had been scared off by Mr. Okello’s unusual security system.

Bees. Sixty buzzing, swarming hives of them, placed strategically around the outside of his farm like a kind of living fence.

“In the past, I would have sucked it up and [started over] from scratch” growing a new sesame crop, he says. But now, “bees protect my garden.”

Elephants began raiding farms and invading villages in this part of northern Uganda in the early 2000s, as communities displaced by decades of fighting between the government and a guerilla group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army returned to areas they had abandoned years before.

There, they encountered herds of elephants who had been freely roaming the region, and who felt little remorse at helping themselves to the carefully tended fruits and vegetables grown by their new human neighbors.

It was a problem that demanded creative intervention. When elephants raided farms, they destroyed livelihoods, hobbling communities already impoverished by the war. 

But when communities attacked the elephants in response, they threatened the ecological balance in northern Uganda, and also the country’s single largest source of foreign dollars: tourism. Visitors flocked to parks like Murchison Falls to see the gentle giants, whose population was on the rise thanks to reductions in poaching in the area.  

“Over the years, the number of animals, which has been on the increase, has led into the fight for resources with the also increasing human population,” says Bashir Hangi, a spokesperson for the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

A Surprising Solution

Over the years, government and frustrated local communities have tested a wide variety of solutions, from repelling elephants with the pungent smell of chili peppers to simply building electric fences that keep people on one side, and elephants on the other.

In Nwoya, where Mr. Okello tends his sesame garden, farmers had tried to scare the elephants away with chilis, as well as other low-tech methods like banging together metal pots and setting small fires near their gardens.

But these strategies “weren’t effective enough,” says John Bosco Okullu, a local leader. “They were also tiresome because one had to monitor their garden all the time” in order to keep the elephants at bay.

In 2009, Mr. Okullu was part of a group of farmers and local leaders chosen by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to travel to Tsavo East National Park in Kenya to study how communities there were using bees to protect their farms from elephants.

They came back armed with a surprising new fact. Elephants are scared of bees. Really, really scared. They fear being stung in the trunk, eyes, and mouth so intensely that they run away even from the recorded sound of bees.

To protect a garden, the team learned to hang hives between two trees or sturdy poles, and then string together the hives with wire. Every time an elephant touched the wire, it shook the hives, alerting the bees of their visitor. In a study conducted by researchers in Kenya, these “hive fences” stopped about 80 percent of marauding elephants.

But when Mr. Okullu’s group introduced the model they had studied in Kenya to local farmers in Uganda, they met with some resistance. The pesticides used locally, for instance, are toxic to bees, meaning that farmers with hive fences have to find other ways to protect their crops from hungry insects.

Hives can also be expensive. Local bee hives, made from palm tree stems or tree bark, cost between $4 and $8 each. That puts them out of the reach of many farmers in the area, who often live on $1 or less per day.

And then, of course, there is the matter of the bees themselves. Managing bee hives is time-consuming. Many farmers spend an hour or more a day on maintenance, since hives have to be kept clear of termites, ants, and spiders, and the grasses nearby kept short to keep snakes at bay. And the bees themselves can be aggressive, particularly during the afternoon when they are hard at work producing honey.

Mr. Okello heard about the hive fences on the radio in 2013, when he was near his wits end searching for a solution to his elephant problem. He visited the Koch Goma Apiculture Development Association, a local umbrella body for farmers, who run two-month trainings for farmers interested in cultivating bee hives.

In total, about 250 farmers in northern Uganda have been trained by Koch Goma in using bees to stop elephant attacks. And for most, the bees have also become an additional source of income, from honey they harvest from their hives.

But the method has its limits too. The number of both elephants and people is on the rise here. In the 1970s and ‘80s, when poaching was at its height, Uganda had only about 700 wild elephants. Today, it has about 5,000, including 1,330 in Murchison Falls, near Nwoya, according to a 2014 aerial survey. Meanwhile, Uganda has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, according to United Nations data.

That continues to bring more and more contact between people and elephants – and more and more frustration as well.

“[We] never begged for food in the past or went to work on other people’s farms as is the case today,” said Rwot David Onen Acana II in 2016. Now people “can’t even afford to support their children in schools or provide family needs since farming as a source of income has been affected by elephants,” explained the paramount chief of the Acholi, one of northern Uganda’s largest ethnic groups. “We are aware that it is against the law to kill those elephants, but [at least] if we are victimized and prosecuted, we will have saved ourselves from hunger.”

The Wildlife Authority says such communities should consider digging trenches to give extra protection to their gardens, adding that the government is planning to erect more electric fences in areas prone to elephant raids.

Meanwhile, a bill that has been winding its way through Parliament since 2017 to compensate farmers for crop damage caused by wild animals passed earlier this month. It is now awaiting the signature of President Yoweri Museveni.

But for now, people like Mr. Okello rely mostly on their bees.

On a recent morning, he fed strands of chopped lemon grass into one of his hives – a scent known to attract bees. Nearby, a small swarm of bees buzzed past. Mr. Okello looked up, hopeful that they would stop.  

“If they join your [hives],” he says, “then you have an army that protects you.”