I first started observing elephants in the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park in 1996. For fun, together with my artist Mother, I started to record the ear patterns of elephants in the area after reading the books of Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Cynthia Moss. Already set on becoming an ecologist I was completing my MSc at the time. Later, I finished my fieldwork for my PhD and had to leave the bush with a heavy heart for the write-up phase in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Marlene McCay whose father was instrumental in founding the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve together with Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton saw the drawings and kindly enticed me back to the area to manage an elephant project focussed on continuing the ID study and radio-tracking elephants. As time passed Marlene and I co-founded Elephants Alive (EA), officially registering the project with Kruger in 2003. Long-term research contracts are always hard to come by so EA had to earn its keep and prove our devotion and commitment. More than 20 years later, with tears of gratitude I signed the 10 year contract! The humble roots of our work, although planted in the APNR, have spread like the movements of the collared elephants across the vast landscape of Great Limpopo National Park. Our ID study has grown to over 2000 individuals and from the first elephant collared in 1998, we have collared 79 since then. The common thread running through it all has always been the elephants and the APNR. They say (Nelson Henderson) that the true meaning to life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to continue our work and for providing new meaning to this wise saying. I hope that the shade of the EA tree will always cast a shadow over the APNR and that many an elephant will come to rest beneath the branching network of all who have offered us support over so many years.
In March, the Elephants Alive (EA) research team attended the 2018 Savanna Science Network Meeting at Skukuza Rest Camp, Kruger National Park. This academic conference brings together scientists conducting savanna-related research in Africa, South America and Australasia, and is hosted by the Scientific Services of South African National Parks. EA’s Anka Bedetti-de Kock presented a 15-minute platform presentation titled ‘Developing fear landscapes – how do elephants respond?’ and Jessica Wilmot presented a poster titled ‘Protocol development and its use to classify damage causing elephants and related mitigation strategies’. Michelle Henley has been attending and delivering presentations at the Savanna Science Network Meeting for over a decade, forming valuable scientific relations with researchers from a variety of institutions to keep our research on elephants current and applied.
Then in April Michelle was off to the Institute for Advanced Study at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin for a workshop entitled The Conservation Applications of Research on Elephant Behavior and Ecology. The workshop was kindly convened and financially supported by Dr. Hannah Mumby from the University of Cambridge. The cold was kept at bay by the energy and enthusiasm of the elephant specialists covering topics which varied from the importance of long-term studies to elephant cognition, male sociality, tree protection and human-elephant-coexistence for both African and Asian elephants. One outcome of the workshop will be a succinct summary of the burning conservation issues surrounding the protection of elephants. A call for the amalgamation of funding opportunities to make allowance for comparative studies across the globe was also considered important, thereby enabling new insights to be reached in a rapidly changing world for both elephants and people. Michelle departed inspired by the collective wisdom of more than a 100 years of fieldwork and insights gained from the studies currently still run under the guidance of the fieldwork ‘matriarchs’ coming from Asia, Botswana, Kenya, Namibia and South-Africa.
Elephants Alive’s research has successfully demonstrated that elephants avoid trees that have a bee hive hung in them. But what is it about the bees that is causing the elephants to steer clear? Our studies continue with the next phase of bee research……
Over the past decade, extensive research has been carried out on a worldwide scale to investigate the usage of honeybees as a mitigation method for human-elephant conflict. Whilst elephants may be thick-skinned and the largest land-dwelling mammals, sensitive areas around their eyes and ears leave them vulnerable to the painful stings of the relatively tiny honeybees. As bizarre as this may sound, it is backed by thorough scientific studies focussing on various aspects of the elephant-honeybee relationship!
Pioneering research by Dr. Lucy King (Save the Elephants – Elephants and Bees Project) has shown that elephants display signs of uncertainty and fear when confronted with the sound of swarming honeybees, often moving away from these sounds at quite some pace. Furthermore, King and her colleagues have successfully used beehive fence-lines (beehives connected to one other by wires) around crop fields as a method of preventing elephants from crop raiding. Beehive fence-lines are now being used in various African and Asian countries where human-elephant conflict is of great concern. More recently in South Africa, research by Elephants Alive has found that beehives can be used as a successful mitigation method for protecting large trees from elephant impact in the Greater Kruger National Park.
Whilst studies have focused on elephant interactions with honeybee sounds and actual beehives, only suggestions and hypotheses have been made about the impact that the honeybee alarm pheromone may have on elephants. And it is worth investigating because of the elephants’ acute sense of smell! The honeybee alarm pheromone is comprised of a number compounds, and is produced by honeybees when threatened. Production of this pheromone by honeybee guards increases the aggression levels of the rest of the colony, leading to the honeybee attack response.
Whilst the manipulation of this pheromone by scientists can evoke attack responses from honeybees, it is unknown whether the pheromone can be used to deter elephants. Elephants Alive researchers have partnered with Professor Mark Wright (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and Transfrontier Africa to investigate the honeybee alarm pheromone’s potential in South Africa on both wild and semi-captive elephants. In Balule Private Nature Reserve, the researchers investigated whether socks containing the alarm pheromone SPLAT (Specialized Pheromone and Lure Application Technology) mixture could effectively deter elephants around waterholes. Elephant reactions to these socks were compared with reactions to control (unscented) socks. The results have been very positive and will soon be available in a scientifically published research article. The researchers, in collaboration with Human-Wildlife Solutions, will now turn their attention to semi-captive elephants at Camp Jabulani (Kapama Private Game Reserve) for in-depth investigations into elephants’ behavioural responses to the pheromone, as well as honeybee sounds, smells, and presence. The results from this experiment will help researchers use various aspects of honeybee biology in the search for peaceful solutions to human-elephant conflict. The research team are looking forward to commencing with the trials and thank Adine Roode and her staff at Camp Jabulani for their willingness to assist with this ground-breaking research.
Invitation to Elephants Alive private dinner, with guest speaker, Iain Douglas Hamilton, 20 Sept, Johannesburg
Elephants Alive invite you to our fundraiser dinner to #celebrateelephants.
We are proud to announce our guest speaker is Iain Douglas Hamilton, CBE. Iain is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the African elephant, scientist, multiple award winner and author, founder of the Save the Elephants, and management and scientific advisor to Elephants Alive.
6pm, Cnr Cafe, Craighall Park, Thursday 20 September 2018.
R750 per person, including wine, specially created three course dinner and coffee.
Reservations call Cnr Cafe 011 880 2244 (Re: EA + name + contact number).