All posts by Sarah Smuts

The tale of 100 beehives

By Jessica Wilmot

4 beehives on steel stands

On the evening of the 1st of March, the first batch of 60 buzzing beehives were delivered to our HQ at Ekuthuleni. In partnership with The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, the boxes were carefully placed on our repurposed steel stands. Two weeks later, the last 40 beehives were delivered to complete our 100-beehive apiary – no small feat for our small team of eager beekeepers. Soon after delivery, we initiated artificial feeding to strengthen the colonies as the onset of winter meant less natural nectar and pollen for our hard-working, winged ladies. To make the feeding less labour intensive, we devised an easy feeding mechanism – we made cement bowls to house artificial pollen for the bees.  Thanks to the generosity of the Hoedspruit community who donated plenty of empty wine bottles, we used feeding ramps connected to the bottles, which are inserted into the hive to ensure the bees also get a sugar-water mix for additional sustenance.  Apis mellifera scutellate (African honey bee) is a natural-migratory species so you can expect to find some colonies absconding despite our best efforts to settle them with plenty of energy-giving-food while there is a dearth of blossoms over winter.

Honey badger inspecting a hive

The rewards are always sweeter once you overcome the challenges. Nothing can be truer when it comes to working with bees while you wait in anticipation for the first summer rains to bring relief to all. Other than the challenges of feeding in winter, the baboons and honey badgers have been keeping us on our toes. Although we built the stands to be honey badger proof – 1.5m off the ground to be exact, we have been reminded never to take nature for granted. While we commend these ferocious animals for their determination in getting to our hives, finding destroyed combs and being outwitted by a badger, is a real blow. Thankfully we’ve been able to strap all of our boxes to the stands, preventing any further raiding. We have made peace with the baboons sneaking in and stealing sugar water from the bottle as well.

Baboon stealing sugar water
Curious giraffe inspecting a hive

With our apiary fully established, we set-off on a two-day beekeeping course with Inge Lotter, a renowned beekeeper in the Lowveld. The first day entailed covering the basic theory of beekeeping, while day two focused on practical learning, honey harvesting and wax processing. The in-depth training has allowed us to transfer the knowledge to those helping us with the bees. In preparation for the coming summer months we also ensured that we have a sizable honey harvesting room with quick access to drop off beehive supers that will be dripping with honey, ready to be spun from the combs in the frames. We can’t wait to paint our bee harvesting room with some inspirational quotes and colours. Watch this space for more! With our gardens steadily growing and the summer months holding the promise of trapping wild colonies with the onset of the nectar flow to replace any loses, the future looks bright for the bees, the plants that will need to be pollinated and the people that are all part of what we are trying to achieve.  

Thank you

A big thank you to the Tanglewood Foundation, Rufford Foundation and Lion Share for their generous support which has enabled us to make this project a success. Furthermore, without the passion and hard work of The Black Mambas and our team on the ground (Jody Visser, Valerious Mushayi and Fresh Mharadze), our bees would not be thriving nor could our long-term vision of a transfer of knowledge into an identified corridor in southern Mozambique be realised. Lastly, an appreciation for the hundreds of hard-working ladies who are not only making our vision a reality, but continuously amazes us with their matriarchal structure and biology. Who would have thought that working towards elephant conservation would lead us to learning so much more about African honey bees.

Collared elephants are the storytellers of connected landscapes

By Dr. Michelle Henley

Dr Joao Almeida and Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação (ANAC) collaring a bull named Swazi who has been caught red-handed crop-raiding. Swazi get his name from the little detour he makes along the route into Eswatini (Swaziland) (photo: Saving the Survivors)

As a potential Kruger National Park (KNP) tourist, you may self-drive into an elephant sighting. Depending on your view and the type of sighting, they may keep your attention for an hour. If it is only a group of young bulls and not a family unit with all the intricacies of family life and the delightful elephant babies to observe, you would probably leave the sighting sooner. You may have noticed a collar on one on or two of the bulls, especially in the southern region of the Kruger. As you watch them peacefully feed and rhythmically flapping their ears, you would never have guessed where these bulls have been. You would never know what incredible institutional knowledge is locked within their brains and the paths that these collared elephants are courageously forging.  

Since 2018, with the help of Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação (ANAC), the Mozambique Wildlife Alliance (MWA), Saving the Survivors and our donors, we collared a number of elephants outside of the protected areas in southern Mozambique. The collaring operations were conducted by our dedicated colleagues Drs. Carlos Lopes Pereira, Joao Almeida, Hugo Pereira and Hagnesio Chiponde and have revealed some extraordinary journeys. While the corridor-moving elephants of Mozambique have been mapping the connectivity of a larger landscape with their tracks, on the other side of the globe, 15 Asian elephants have wandered 500km from Xishuangbanna, a nature reserve in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, north toward an unknown destination. There the local government has deployed 14 drones and some 500 people to keep the herd safe. Eight people act as constant bodyguards tracking them 24 hours a day and ensuring that they are lead away from densely populated areas by providing over two tonnes of elephant food where needed. The State TV has been following their every move with the hashtag #WhyElephantsTrekkingNorth viewed more than 16 million times on Weibo. Drone footage of them sleeping has attracted 200 million views per day.

Part of the famous herd of elephants. They are exhausted after travelling over 500km north from Xishuangbanna, a reserve in China. The elephants have crossed human infrastructure and helped themselves to crops and water sources along the way (photo: China Central Television.)

Our bachelor herd of over 10 trailblazing elephants have trekked without the fanfare nearly 200km across the unfenced landscape of southern Mozambique after first resting in the Kruger National Park over high summer. Like their Asian counterparts, they have crossed busy roads, densely human dominated areas, commercial farmlands, mines and subsistence croplands, mostly under the cover of darkness and at high speeds. In 2020, they came some 8km short of reaching the Futi corridor before being chased back by gunfire, as they have not left subsistence crops and dams untouched in their wake. This year they are on the same route again and we hope that they will be able to join with the unique coastal elephant population of Maputo Special Reserve (MSR). Last year’s journey saw the tracks of the MSR family units that we had collared in 2019 overlap with those of the bulls. The path finding bulls have thus uniquely linked Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area to Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area. Declared Transfrontier Conservation Areas have gone a long way to assist with the large spatial requirements of elephants across international borders but these bulls are showing us that our thinking is still too small.

The trailblazing route of the collared bulls, linking three zones of intense use (southern Kruger, Namaacha Valley and south of Ghangalane) via corridor routes with the Futi corridor which used to be a historical migration route between Maputo Special Reserve on the coast of Mozambique and Tembe National Park in Kwazulu Natal in South Africa (map: Elephants Alive GIS team).

Increasing human populations and different land-use practices, security measures or fences separating international borders has historically led to a variation in elephant densities across Protected Areas (PAs). High local densities of elephants, such as in the KNP and MSR, could not only lower the biodiversity of the ecosystems they occupy, but also lead to less genetic diversity within this segment of the wider elephant population (meta-population). Consequently, enabling natural movements into other areas of the TFCA and beyond becomes critical for the long-term sustainability of PAs with locally increasing elephant populations. Establishing corridors which link PAs across international boundaries and within countries become vital to extensively increase elephant habitat and potentially chanel elephant movements to National Parks that have low elephant densities or are in need of repopulation following the recent declines in areas due to the illigal trade in ivory.

The corridor moving elephants in Mozambique often confront subsistence farmers resulting in crop-raiding events which exaserbate the hardship many of these poverty stricken people deal with due to seasonal droughts and floods. A profound understanding of elephants’ movements and spatial requirements is thus needed, as well as the socio-economic needs of the people that have to share land with elephants. Elephants Alive, with the help of the Elephant Crisis Fund and JAMMA International, have recently deployed a Rapid Resonse Unit (RRU) to assist with the safety of people and their assets by distributing mitigtion toolboxes ahead of time to keep the elephants away from crops. Antonio Alverca who spearheads the RRU together with Antonia Cumbana and Freis Mabuto are the real-time elephant shepherds. This reactive mitigation strategy will be bolstered by a longer term plan to promote human-elephant coexistence in corridors identified by collared elephants and owned by the relevant communities so that people’s livelihoods become compatible with the conservation outcomes planned for corridor areas. The cultivation of elephant unpalatable crops in conflict zones based on the experience gained from the Proof of Concept project conducted in South Africa and in collaboration with the  Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit will ensure the supplementation of existing incomes by means of crops unattractive to elephants but with a market value. Concurrently, greater food security of crops readily eaten by elephants will be on offer due to their protection via beehive fences and broad barriers of unpalatable crops. We have already gained the support of the Elephant Crisis Fund, the Oak Foundation, JAMMA International and the Kate Sanderson Bequest Fund for the long-term plans in Mozambique while the Tanglewood Foundation, the Lions Share and the Rufford Foundation have financed the demonstration bee- and crop gardens in South Africa.

I watch the collared bull move slowly and deliberately in southern Kruger. There is a mischievous glint in his amber eye, which almost gives away his secrets of great journeys and dangerous adventures. Actively feeding in the open in Kruger does not tell you about his high-speed nocturnal forays in Mozambique to get what he needs after hiding out in thick bush during the day along his journey to the coast. When you next watch a collared elephant, think about the story-boxes they carry around their neck. From their collars, we download the routes to their networks of paths that cover great distances. Often the elephants will line their movement corridors with seeds they ingested in Kruger and which grow into tall trees they may plant like flags mapping their routes of adventure. Their big bodies and institutional memories for far off places are not made for small enclosures or fences. They will push our boundaries. They will keep at it until we pay attention. They will remind us how big our conservation planning should be. They will stretch your imagination. They will keep trying your patience if your thinking is too small. Eventually, you will understand what they are trying to tell you. When you see that vista of a large elephant framed minutely against the background of true wilderness, both you and the elephants will know you have arrived and the journey was worth the strife. Remember to think of these things when next you observe an elephant bull in Kruger with a story-box (collar) attached to it.

Celebrating Five Years of Protecting Trees with Bees

by Robin Cook & Dr Michelle Henley

On a warm summer’s night in December 2015, Elephants Alive, in conjunction with Jejane Private Nature Reserve, initiated the ambitious operation of hanging fifty active beehives in fifty marula trees in order to test whether African honeybees could be used to protect trees against elephant impact. Five years down the line, Elephants Alive’s researchers have methodically collected data to gain a clearer understanding as to how this biological relationship functions, learning new information as the years go by.

Robin Cook

Dr. Lucy King’s research in Kenya had clearly shown that African honeybees can be used to protect crops from crop-raiding elephants, thus increasing human-elephant co-existence around protected areas. Elephants are vulnerable to bee-stings in their eyes, ears and trunks, which appears to be more than enough reasons for them to avoid contact with an angry bee swarm. Here in Hoedspruit, Elephants Alive’s Dr Michelle Henley, who had been tasked at the time to investigate tree protection methods as part of a collaborative project with South African National Parks, thus initiated the concept of using bees to protect iconic trees. Michelle contacted Robin Cook to drive the project for his Master’s degree at Wits University, with Michelle and Lucy as co-supervisors. Jejane Private Nature Reserve, who have always been strong supporters of Elephants Alive’s research activities, kindly agreed to host the project.

The project has lived through both wet and dry years, ranging from high to low bee occupancy levels, providing valuable data as to its effectiveness in the Lowveld system. The project itself compares elephant impact levels on marula trees containing beehives, as well as those containing wire-netting (chick-mesh wrapped around a tree to prevent bark-stripping), and trees left as controls (no protection). Elephant impacts to these trees are meticulously monitored each year, allowing the researchers to evaluate effectiveness levels of each method. And after five years, are the beehives working? The answer is still a resounding “Yes”. Our results show that beehives can decrease tree mortality by six-fold, versus trees with no protection. And to date, no marula tree with an active beehive has died from elephant impact. Whilst elephants may still feed off trees with empty beehives, the probability of these trees getting pushed over or snapped is far lower in comparison to their wire-netted and control counterparts.

Elephants Alive honey

We can also celebrate the incredible pure honey produced by Elephants Alive’s beehives, of which over eighty litres were harvested this year alone! This natural golden honey has been sold to lodges, tourists and locals across the country, giving guests a sweet taste from the Greater Kruger National Park. The honey has also been used by Dr Joel Alves of WildScapes Veterinary & Conservation Services as an anti-septic treatment for wounded animals within the surrounding landscape. We are humbled to see the bees’ hard-made honey being used to treat multiple species of animals, including wild dogs, rhinos and elephants. Nature always has the answer!

This Elephants Alive project continues to be a success, with elephant, bee and tree conservation and co-existence on the frontlines, as well as a steady flow of honey to support our initiatives. We would like to say a big thank you to all funders, volunteers and Jejane Private Nature Reserve for helping Elephants Alive make this project such a success.

When a friend passes – in memory of Matambu

Tribute to Matambu

by Michelle Henley

The circle of woven green grass dotted with flowers hangs gently from your textured ivory. We placed it there because we felt a need to leave something beautiful in your memory. Our 17-year journey can only be described as a journey of friendship. Once I captured your ear pattern, you were on our records like 2000 other elephants but somehow you were more than a record, more than a name, even more than an elephant. 

Matambu – on his blindness – drawing by Michelle Henley

You had graciously allowed us to collar you over the years, to follow you, to help you where we can. When we noticed your world had become smaller as your eyesight failed, you allowed our hearts to become larger in the process. We examined your eyes but were told it best we don’t try to help as aftercare for a wild elephant would not be possible. On another occasion, you showed us how you could crawl back to life after a terrible injury when this time round our three treatments could make a difference. You chose to walk over to share the shade with us and would contact rumble for us to follow as you left. You became the favourite to the community grandmothers no matter the other elephants we showed them on the day. Many a student or visitor whispered your name when asked which of the elephants left the greatest impression upon them. You were the mentor to numerous young elephant bulls who would place their trunks in your mouth as a greeting filled with respect. You were the elephant that we would introduce people to if they were scared of elephants because you never failed to represent six tons of tangible peace. 

Matambu – young bull (LHS) respectively greeting Matambu (RHS) – c. Alastair Kilpin

You are no more Matambu. On the 1st of February 2021 at 45 you chose to leave us too soon. Our hearts are heavy and our words are few. They say that sorrow is mute. What words does one have when a giant goes to sleep? Your greatness of spirit will always be our standing ovation and your gentleness despite your power, our compass. 
Thank you for having shared our world and making it a brighter place with your peaceful presence.

Matambu – 3 days before he died – c. Grant Anderson

Thank you to Motswari Private Game Reserve and Grant Anderson for making his passing easier. Thank you to Drs. Cobus Raath, Ben Muller and Joel Alves who made Matambu’s life easier when he was in pain. Thank you to the Elephants Alive team for the respect you showed and that we are there for each other while we share this mutual sorrow. Thank you to all who can share just what an incredible animal he was.