Welcoming our first bee colonies – elephants beware! By Kylie Butler (PhD Candidate)

With beehive fence construction almost complete for the first stage of our research site in Dewagiriya Village, Sri Lanka, the time has come for the event we’ve all been eagerly awaiting – introducing bees into their new homes. A bee has many tasks to fulfil as it is: protecting the queen, foraging and gathering pollen, making their delicious honey to name but a few… our bees can add defending homes and crops from elephants to their list of duties. Let’s hope it’s a task they excel at!

An elephant footprint in a home garden

An elephant footprint in a home garden

Our beehive fence farmers have been very keen for this day to arrive – most have been looking after their fence structure dutifully – making sure posts are straight, hives are clean and shade roofs are repaired after heavy rain or wind. Having bees to look after increases the incentive to look after the fence – plus, they can finally begin to learn some beekeeping skills, and as time goes on, learn to harvest honey for their own medicinal and culinary benefits, and to earn some additional income from selling the bees delicious wares.

 Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

 Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

And for everyone involved, and the prime motivation for constructing this research site, we will soon start to learn if the Asian elephants will indeed avoid the Asian honeybees, just as their African cousins do. Learning how the Asian elephants respond to the beehive fence will provide vital information as to how best to manage and develop this technique in Asia, and what role it could potentially play in alleviating human-elephant conflict here. Ideally, we would like to attract bees naturally from the wild, however to get the ball rolling, our lucky first farmers will each have 3 – 4 colonies transferred into the hives hanging on their fence. Our first delivery of colonies arrived from Colombo last week and it was a great learning experience for everyone involved in bee handling to transfer the buzzing families into their new hanging homes. We now have 3 fences with occupied hives, and another 5 fences to go in the next fortnight.

Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

Teaching farmers how to transfer bees into the hives on their fences

Elephant activity has been high in Dewagiriya in recent weeks – with the first crop season of the year over, most farmers have stacks of 50 kg rice bags stored in their homes, plus they are already planting for the next season. Elephants are coming up to the homes attracted by the rice they know is stored within. Several incidents have occurred, where elephants have entered gardens destroying banana and coconut plants before being scared away, posts of unoccupied beehive fences have been knocked down. Most devastating of all, the house of one young couple with a small baby was almost completely destroyed after elephants raided their property twice in one week. Unfortunately, this type of event is not an isolated occurrence, and emphasises strongly why it is so vital to help farmers devise means of protecting their homes and crops.

A bull elephant observed in Wasgamuwa National Park. The lumps evident on his side commonly occur as a result of gunshot or other wounds inflicted by farmers trying to defend their crops.

A bull elephant observed in Wasgamuwa National Park. The lumps evident on his side commonly occur as a result of gunshot or other wounds inflicted by farmers trying to defend their crops.

Let’s hope the beehive fences, full of our little guardians of nature, can also become the guardians these farmers need to keep their families and livelihoods safer at nights.

Twice in one week, an elephant visited this home at night while the family were sleeping inside - breaking down the entire wall to try and access rice harvest stored inside

Twice in one week, an elephant visited this home at night while the family were sleeping inside - breaking down the entire wall to try and access rice harvest stored inside

I extend a huge thankyou to the Rufford Small Grants for Nature Foundation, Chester Zoo Conservation Grant, Elephant Action League and Phoenix Zoo Conservation and Science Grant for their financial support, without which this project would not be possible. Sincerest thanks also go to collaborating partners The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, Save the Elephants and Professor M. Wijayagunawardane (University of Peradeniya) for all of their valuable input and assistance. 

Do wildlife safaris benefit Asian elephant conservation? By Kylie Butler

Through my PhD work in Sri Lanka, I’m lucky enough to visit Wasgamuwa National Park almost weekly, to observe and collect elephant data. This is a beautiful and wild park in Central Sri Lanka with a healthy elephant population, and is not as frequented by tourists as more well-known destinations such as Yala and Minneriya National Parks. I’ve had magical days in the park surrounded by elephant families feeding and meandering by, calves rolling in the mud, and strong solitary bulls checking the females out. Unfortunately, I’ve also had less than magical days where the foolish actions of drivers causes elephants to become stressed and disturbed, repeatedly running away from, or charging at, vehicles.

An elephant family disturbed by a vehicle approaching too quickly and too close, and walking directly towards the car

An elephant family disturbed by a vehicle approaching too quickly and too close, and walking directly towards the car

It is these observations of both human and elephant behaviour that have left me thinking – does this type of Jeep Safari tourism really benefit wildlife? There is no question that money generated from National Park tourism can benefit a countries economy, thus provoking governments to perceive a financial incentive to protecting the parks inhabitants – of which in Sri Lanka, elephants are the most well-known, majestic and easily viewable of the terrestrial mammals. Placing this type of financial value on wild elephant populations can encourage governments to implement conservation planning and to ensure the animals continue to benefit the country in the future. I personally think that the elephants intrinsic value as an elephant is more than enough reason for protection. However, governments tend to speak a language of money, and financial benefits can be a key influencing factor for those who devise the management plans and regulations that can make or break the future of elephants. The more importance that is placed on elephants in the wild, the more incentive there is for governments to stop the illegal capture of baby elephants, to actively implement human-elephant conflict mitigation plans, and to manage the National Parks well – all vital factors in securing a future for wild Asian elephants.

Sri Lanka is home to Asia’s second largest wild elephant population, and being a small island boasts the highest density of wild Asian elephants. The numerous, aesthetically breath-taking National Park’s offer a unique opportunity for tourists to see elephants up-close in the wild, akin to the safari experience so revered across Africa. Theoretically, a well-managed park system could have a multitude of benefits to elephant conservation. People would experience the awe-inspiring wonder of watching elephants just being elephants: socialising; caring for their floppy and uncoordinated young; trunk wrestling in a game of strength; rhythmically feeding on grass. From bulls to small families and huge herds – you can see it all. No chains, no circus tricks, no unethical rides on busy roads. Just the sights, smells and sounds of the elephants natural world. This is an incomparable opportunity to educate people about elephants and their role in an ecosystem, and to generate money for wildlife management and conservation through park tourism.      

A family of elephants interacting in Wasgamuwa NP. It was a real privilege to watch this family of elephants doing what they do best - just being elephants in the wild.

A family of elephants interacting in Wasgamuwa NP. It was a real privilege to watch this family of elephants doing what they do best - just being elephants in the wild.

Sadly, my personal experiences over the last year and a half, and stories shared by other researchers and tourists, show that the safari experience all too often deviates from the idyllic description above. Many trackers, guides and drivers appear to have little knowledge of an elephants behaviour, and are either oblivious to, or deliberately disregard, any guidelines about responsible safari tourism. It is not unusual in parks such as Yala and Minneriya to see up to 20 vehicles surrounding elephants, often blocking their path to road crossings or water tanks, and even separating mothers and calves. One bold bull in Yala has learned to wait at a certain point on the road which cars have to pass, and to poke his trunk into safari vehicles looking for food, and refusing to leave without a treat. This behaviour is 100% driven by humans, and if one day, the bull isn’t happy with what’s on offer and flips a car, he will likely be killed or captured as a ‘problem’ animal. In Wasgamuwa National Park, I see drivers speeding up to elephants, startling them and ignoring all common warning signals that the elephant is upset. Often if an elephant charges, the driver will reverse back up to them, causing more elephants to join in the charge. Tourists must take their fair share of the blame also, as many tip generously for this type of close-up, adrenaline pumping encounter. It is no wonder some elephants are becoming less tolerant, rather than more relaxed, around vehicles.

There is nothing fun or nice about making an elephant feel threatened in its own home. Here in Sri Lanka, human-elephant conflict is the single biggest threat to elephant conservation. People and elephants come into conflict all too frequently, as elephant habitat diminishes, and elephants enter communities to raid crops at nights. The National Parks should be a safe haven for elephants, a place they want to be. Sri Lanka needs strict park rules and regulations that are enforced not just printed on a piece of paper. Tourists need to know the do’s and don’ts of park etiquette prior to beginning a safari and can lay down their own laws too, by expressing their desire to view the elephants natural behaviour and not disturb them. Drivers, trackers and guides must be educated in wildlife behaviour, tourism and conservation.

Photo by   Lauren E. Ross

Photo by Lauren E. Ross

 Guides and tourists have encouraged this bull to approach cars for treats. Surrounding by multiple cars, he buries his trunk into the back of jeeps searching for food. Many safari guides and drivers encourage this behavior to give their tourists a unique experience. This is extremely dangerous as the bull will not leave until he receives food now and ambushes cars. Note the front left tyre of the car lifted up, as the bull uses his head and tusks to push on the car until he is satisfied with his treats. Photo by Lauren E. Ross

 Guides and tourists have encouraged this bull to approach cars for treats. Surrounding by multiple cars, he buries his trunk into the back of jeeps searching for food. Many safari guides and drivers encourage this behavior to give their tourists a unique experience. This is extremely dangerous as the bull will not leave until he receives food now and ambushes cars. Note the front left tyre of the car lifted up, as the bull uses his head and tusks to push on the car until he is satisfied with his treats. Photo by Lauren E. Ross

A protected area should be a place where the needs and welfare of the wildlife is unquestionably the highest priority. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of safari tourism becoming just another detrimental source of fuel in the human-elephant conflict inferno.

I’d be very interested to hear the experiences and opinions of others lucky enough to visit Asia’s wild elephants, and to share ideas on how we can improve park tourism to the benefit of all stakeholders across all species involved.  

Say hello to our newest wildlife blogger! Kylie Butler

I’ve followed the invaluable conservation endeavours of Animal Works since its beginning and I have to say what a wonderful opportunity to be able to contribute to the conversation and education regarding the protection of our magical natural world through blogging on this website.

My name is Kylie Butler and I am a PhD student with the University of Newcastle, Australia researching what I consider to be one of the most globally important issues – human-elephant conflict. To briefly introduce myself, I have previously worked as an intern and Master of Environment research student with Save the Elephants in Kenya, and on an elephant ‘voluntourism’ project with Global Vision International in Thailand. Everything about elephants fascinates me – from their intricate individual behaviours, their family and social structures, their cultural and religious value and how this helps or hinders their conservation and welfare, and their tricky relationship with human beings.

A family of elephants emerging from the forest cover to use a water tank shared with people on the outskirts of a village

A family of elephants emerging from the forest cover to use a water tank shared with people on the outskirts of a village

This co-existence with humans forms the basis of my PhD study, and I imagine will be the focus of the vast majority of my blogs, as it is this topic that is consuming my life right now. At present, I am sitting in the open-walled research/field house of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS), competing with a myriad of insects that are attacking my computer screen, and planning just how I can contribute to human-elephant conflict mitigation here in Sri Lanka, where the unfortunately not uncommon scenario of rising human populations and reduced elephant habitat, is contributing to escalating levels of human-elephant conflict.

I am working under the supervision of Dr. Lucy King (Save the Elephants) and in collaboration with SLWCS to investigate the behaviour and social dynamics of elephants in a heavily crop-raided area of Central Sri Lanka. What I will do over the next two years, is to examine characteristics of crop-raiding elephants, their personality, their relatedness to one another and to identify how these factors may influence an elephants propensity to crop-raid. Simultaneously, I will be introducing beehive fencing as an elephant crop-raiding deterrent.

Beehive fencing was designed by my supervisor Dr. King and is showing tremendous success in Africa, where farmers are benefiting considerably from reduced crop-raiding events and an alternative income source through honey sales. A beehive fence is, put quite simply, a series of beehives hung from posts and surrounding an area to be protected from elephants. The beehives are connected by wire, and should an elephant attempt to move between the hives to access the crops inside, it will hit the wire causing the beehives to swing, and the bees to swarm out and sting the elephants. Understandably, elephants do not appreciate bee stings and avoid the fences!

This concept is new to Asia and working with a different species of elephant and a different species of bees could of course, produce different results. This is why it is so important to test this idea in Asia and evaluate the potential here. Like so many other human-elephant conflict areas, my research site in Dewagiriya Village, Sri Lanka is a low socio-economic community where farmers rely on crops to support themselves and their families. This village is in close proximity to Wasgamuwa National Park so it is possible elephants are leaving park boundaries to crop raid. However, many elephant also reside primarily outside of National Park boundaries here. Elephants are tempted by the tasty treats of paddy fields, maize, fruit trees and vegetables, even breaking into houses to access crops stored inside. One farmer even told me of an elephant breaking down their kitchen wall and taking his salt. Here, I see both the devastation an elephant can cause to the farmer, and the devastation the farmer can cause to the elephants. Many elephants are suffering from bullet wounds and are obviously aggressive and nervous around people.

I am currently setting up a trial beehive fencing site of 8 fenced farms, looking at protecting people’s homes and home gardens to evaluate the initial potential of this low-cost, low-maintenance technique to help keep both elephants and people safe.

Myself, my field assistant Supun Herath, and the Somathilaka family, standing beside the first beehive fence to be built in Sri Lanka

Myself, my field assistant Supun Herath, and the Somathilaka family, standing beside the first beehive fence to be built in Sri Lanka

Stay tuned over the coming months, as I discuss further the issues facing Dewagiriya village, which I believe are representative of many human-elephant conflict areas, how the beehive fences are progressing, and other human-elephant conflict related issues.   

*A big thank you to Save the Elephants and the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society for their collaboration on this project, and to the Rufford Small Grants for Nature Foundation, Chester Zoo, Elephant Action League and Phoenix Zoo for their financial assistance.