British Airways is helping solve an intractable problem for rural African farmers

Hanged bee hive.
Hanged bee hive.

The problem is the human-elephant conflict that results when pachyderms follow their extraordinary sense of smell to track down juicy vegetables or harvested bags of maize from fields. Since the average elephant can consume up to 400kg of food a day, this can be devastating to rural subsistence farmers.

Farmers respond by shouting, exploding firecrackers, releasing dogs, hurling chilli bombs or banging metal sheeting. If this fails to deter the hungry raiders they may resort to spears or bow and arrows, which often results in the deaths or injuries of both people and elephants.

Electric fencing is not ideal for many reasons, not least the expense. Fences also cut wildlife corridors, result in over-grazing and permanent damage to ecosystems. Confining herds can cause localised population explosions with potentially devastating consequences for the elephants, other wildlife and the ecosystem.

A bee fence.
A bee fence.

Bees, on the other hand, are relatively easy to keep, don’t disrupt wildlife migration, provide farmers with a source of income, and – most importantly – elephants dislike them.

Together, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, zoologist Dr Lucy King and British Airways are establishing ‘beehive fences’ on five farms along the Mtito Andei River in Kenya. The river forms the boundary between local communities and the Tsavo East National Park in the south east of the country between Nairobi and Mombasa.

Bees don’t disrupt wildlife migration and provide farmers with a source of income.
Bees don’t disrupt wildlife migration and provide farmers with a source of income.

Initial talks began in 2013, with Dr King, who works with Save the Elephants in Kenya, visiting farmers in the area. Mtito Andei farmers who had started a group to deal with human-wildlife conflict in the area were able to disseminate questionnaires and report back on incidents, enabling the project team to identify where elephants were raiding crops.

Desperate for a solution the farmers, were very receptive to Dr King’s research. Also, the local Wakamba tribe, avid bee keepers, were delighted to get modern beehives from which they could earn an income.

British Airways, which has supported the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for the past decade, donated £5 000 for the launch of the beehive fence pilot project in Mtito Andei a year ago.

Neville Sheldrick, of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, who has spearheaded the beehive fence project, says it’s too soon to draw any scientific conclusions about its success, as it has not yet been trailed through the wet season when large fields of maize tempt hungry elephants.

The data Dr King has collected from several years of research indicates that the fences are 80% effective, with only two of every 10 elephants finding a way through. “When I visit, the farmers proudly walk me around showing me the footprints of elephants that have walked along the fence in several locations before turning back towards the Park,” says Sheldrick. “They are delighted with it, and neighbours are eager to be included.

“Two of the five families involved have already made small honey harvests and been paid. The real proof of the pudding is that most people had stopped farming because the elephants wrought so much damage. Now farming is again an option and one farmer has started an irrigation project to produce vegetables.”

Should the fences prove as effective as those in Dr King’s research then agricultural yield will be higher, once again making farming a viable way for families in the area to make a living.

“This is just the sort of project we love to support,” says Mary Barry, head of community investment for British Airways. “Long-term partnerships, such as this one, allow us to positively respond to opportunities, effecting a simple solution that makes a meaningful difference.”

  • Read more about the plight of South Africa’s bees here