Elephants and Bees, Sri Lanka by Kylie Butler (PhD Candidate)

I have been working on the Elephants and Bees, Sri Lanka project for almost 3 years now and am pleased to report that our pilot study is going well.

Our first year, back in 2014, was a very busy year of planning – visiting villages, learning from farmers about the many challenges they face living alongside elephants including the damage to crops and property inflicted during crop-raids, and determining which village and farms were most suitable for our pilot study. This lengthy period enabled me to form a strong local team, headed by my field assistant and translator Supun Herath, to begin to know the local farmers and let them get to know us, and to begin to learn about the many complicated and conflicting interactions between humans and elephants.

Our research site is located in Dewagiriya Village, Matale District, Central Sri Lanka. Located near to Wasgamuwa National Park and the Mahaweli River, Dewagiriya Village experiences almost year-round crop-raiding. Farmers rely on their crops – primarily rice – to feed their families and to sell at markets to generate income. From preparing fields, to planting, to harvesting, to storing harvests in their homes, farmers are always at risk from crop-raids and need to vigilantly protect their farms and houses.

To paint a picture of their ongoing challenges, since late 2014, farmers have reported more than 300 elephant events in Dewagiriya village with damage occurring approximately 75% of the time. Some damage is relatively small – a few banana trees perhaps – but it is not uncommon for substantial sections of paddy fields to be damaged in a single crop-raid, or for sections of houses to be knocked down, sometimes while the family is sleeping inside.

Farmers from Dewagiriya Village receive only minimal outside assistance to protect their crops – a few firecrackers to scare the elephants away – and interest and enthusiasm for setting up a beehive fence trial was high. We selected 10 of the worst affected households, scattered about the village, and working with the local community, we built 10 beehive fences to protect homes and home gardens.

Bee colony delivery.

Bee colony delivery.

For the last year and a half, we have been monitoring elephant activity around the fences – collecting data on elephant sightings both inside and outside fence boundaries from farmers, and using camera traps to try and identify the sex and group size of crop-raiders. We also work continuously with farmers to keep fences well-maintained and to increase their beekeeping skills.

While it is still too early to determine the success rate of beehive fence as an elephant deterrent at our field site, we have seen some promising signs. Elephants have broken through the fences on a few occasions, however with the exception of one raid, only near unoccupied hives. Farmers have also taken small amounts of honey from their hives and are slowly beginning to experience additional benefits of beekeeping.

Right now, our main focus is on improving beekeeping skills, so farmers are able to manage their own hives. We have two experienced beekeepers visiting our field site next month to spend two weeks workshopping and training with the farmers. Additionally, increasing hive occupations, so that the deterrent effect of the fences is higher and we can predict the deterrent effect with confidence, is another priority.

I will be at our field site in Sri Lanka for the next three months and look forward to posting updates as we learn more about the potential of beehive fencing as an Asian elephant deterrent along the way! 

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.  

Elephants and Bees Sri Lanka by Kylie Butler, PhD Candidate

These are exciting times at our beehive fence research site in Sri Lanka, with beehive fences completed and encircling the homes of five households, and plans for two additional fences to be built within the next few weeks. The timing couldn’t be better, as farmers have been busily harvesting their acres of paddy field. This is tireless work, not only the physical labour involved in the harvest itself, but the sleepless nights spent guarding the fields from tree huts, making sure they are safe from the hungry bellies of elephants living nearby. Unfortunately for these farmers, their crops are not yet safe despite being out of the ground and bagged into neat 50 kg sacks. Most families will now store these huge bags of rice inside their home, keeping them until the market price is good. Elephants, being the intelligent beings they are and also having huge daily forage intake requirements, are known to break into people’s houses – knocking down walls or tearing off roofs, to access the crops stored inside.

This battle-scarred old bull (sure signs he is a crop-raider) was undeterred by our presence, or that of a farmer chasing after him and lighting a huge fire cracker. This shows both how difficult it can be to scare away elephants, but also the mounting frustrations of the community as there was no visibly apparent reason in this situation to be trying to scare the bull. 

This battle-scarred old bull (sure signs he is a crop-raider) was undeterred by our presence, or that of a farmer chasing after him and lighting a huge fire cracker. This shows both how difficult it can be to scare away elephants, but also the mounting frustrations of the community as there was no visibly apparent reason in this situation to be trying to scare the bull. 

After leaving the field site when the rainy season rendered village roads unpassable, and fence building and elephant observations virtually impossible for a few months, I have returned happy to see the beehive fences being looked after, and the farmers still enthused about using this deterrent technique. I am, of course, not happy to see that the human-elephant conflict is showing no sign of abating and perhaps worsening in the general area. Just a few weeks ago, I watched a large bull elephant, heavily scarred and marred with wounds and abscesses (presumably human-inflicted) meander out of the forest and towards the water tank for a drink. He was minding his own business but had apparently been harassing a farmers buffalo the night before, hence the farmer chased after him and lit a government issued firecracker that let off a terrific boom to chase him away. The bull barely flinched, and continued on his way. I also spent a sleepless night at my research camp, listening to fire crackers igniting all around me and the sounds of the community yelling and clapping and banging, as families tried for well over an hour to deter elephants from their crops. I finally understood what people mean when they say it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to scare elephants away. From the safety of my bed, I felt a tiny bit of the intensity and challenges of human-elephant coexistence which reinforced just how serious it is to securing a future for elephants, that we can work with communities to facilitate a more peaceful environment for both species. As people and elephants become more mutually aggressive and afraid of each other, the behaviour of all is becoming more unpredictable, thus fuelling the danger of the situation.

Kylie Butler and Supun Herath (field assistant) with Mrs. Ghanawathi and her family - our newest beehive fence farmers. Mrs. Ghanawathi supports her family alone since the passing of her husband a few years ago, tending the fields and protecting the house. She lives at the edge of Dewagiriya Village, with a forested area along one side of her house and a water tank along the back - making this a prime area for elephant visitation.

Kylie Butler and Supun Herath (field assistant) with Mrs. Ghanawathi and her family - our newest beehive fence farmers. Mrs. Ghanawathi supports her family alone since the passing of her husband a few years ago, tending the fields and protecting the house. She lives at the edge of Dewagiriya Village, with a forested area along one side of her house and a water tank along the back - making this a prime area for elephant visitation.

A small positive is that the predominant view of the local community also seems to be that elephants should be protected. So long as the people are protected too, nobody wants to see this magnificent animal become extinct. This statement thoroughly emphasises the need to work legitimately with communities to implement community-based crop-raiding deterrents that farmers can use with minimal assistance – of which the beehive fence is a brilliant example. In situations such as here, where government assistance in reducing human-elephant conflict is often insufficient, and a relatively large population of elephants spent a good amount of time outside of protected park boundaries, farmers are desperately keen to find new solutions to protect their livelihoods and families. Farmers are especially excited by the additional income generating opportunity of producing honey, while also protected their homes from elephants.

A bull elephant near Weheragala Corridor, testing the air before he emerges fully from the forest. He caught the scent of a passing cyclist and retreated back into the forest

A bull elephant near Weheragala Corridor, testing the air before he emerges fully from the forest. He caught the scent of a passing cyclist and retreated back into the forest

Right now, we are very close to finishing the first stage of our beehive fence trial in Sri Lanka, which is to establish 8 beehive fences around the home and garden areas of farmers, which will be monitored closely, along with unfenced areas, during the coming crop seasons. Already, we have observed, through the presence of their giant footprints, elephants approaching one of the fences and deciding not to break through. However, without bee occupations elephants will soon realise the physical structure of the fence imposes no real threat. We have one hive occupied naturally – showing the potential of this heavily vegetated area for beekeeping, and will be working with local beekeeping expert Dr. R.W.K. Punchihewa to colonise hives at all fence sites in the coming weeks. I look forward to keeping you updated on our progress with both the beehive fences, and our concurrent investigations of elephant crop-raiding behaviour. 

Kylie Butler and Supun Herath inspecting a beehive from Mr. U.G. Sabana's fence - our first colonised hive!

Kylie Butler and Supun Herath inspecting a beehive from Mr. U.G. Sabana's fence - our first colonised hive!

*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.