Elephants are considered to cause unacceptable levels of damage to certain large trees in some conservation areas. This damage exacerbates human: elephant conflict, with some calling for elephants to be culled to reduce tree damage.
Elephants Alive have been studying the impact of elephants on large trees since 2004, and looking at mitigation methods which could be used to increase the survival rate of large trees. This includes wrapping chicken wire around the trunk to prevent bark-stripping by elephants. Over 3000 trees are being monitored for elephant impact, with half of them being protected from elephant effects in this way.
In 2015 Elephants Alive embarked on a unique project to use bees to protect iconic trees from elephant damage within the Private Reserves. It is known that elephants do not like bees, and beehive fences have been successfully used in East Africa to protect farmers’ crops. So Elephants Alive have pioneered innovative research, using beehives suspended in a number of iconic marula trees.
MSc student, Robin Cook, has been testing how effective bees are at protecting iconic trees, compared to wire-net protection. The study site for the project is Jejane Private Nature Reserve which is part of the Associated Private Nature Reserves on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park.
A total of 50 occupied hives and 50 dummy hives (no bees, just an empty hive) have been hung at the study site on marked marula trees.
The results indicate the following:
- 54% of the control trees, with no protection, suffered from elephant impact which varied from bark stripping to branch breakage.
- 28% of the wire-netted trees received no bark-stripping but either had primary or secondary branches broken.
- Only 2% of the beehive trees were impacted by elephant with the tree itself left untouched. One of the dummy (inactive hives) was ripped from the tree by an elephant bull predicted to be in musth.
Overall beehives proved significantly effective at preventing elephants from impacting marula trees in any form, although the presence of beehives in marula trees did not prevent elephants from moving through the beehive site.
This research was conducted during an extreme drought. Sugar water feeding stations had to be provided, and a number of the hives were vacated by the bees or the colonies died, perhaps due to extreme temperatures and/or lack of food.
Following on from this success, Elephants Alive plan to upgrade the hives, subject to funding – replacing them with superior “Beepak” hives. These hives better protect the bee colonies from adverse conditions, and permit the commercial production of honey. Harvesting the honey will upskill members of the local community, provide an alternative livelihood and increase food security.
At the same time, human: elephant conflict is reduced, as the elephants avoid damaging the marula trees with the hives.
A win: win solution for elephants, large trees, landowners and the local community!