Category Archives: Blog

Bees, Trees and Elephants – Success!

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.

115 beehives were made by the Elephants Alive team. Fifteen of these hives have been kept at the Elephant Research station at Mica for close monitoring and honey production.

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!


Dung and Rumbles – a day in the life of an Elephants Alive researcher

By Harriet Nimmo

Trying to stuff a large, steaming lump of elephant dung into a small glass test tube was not quite what I’d expected, when I spent a day in the field with the Elephants Alive research team.

The dung samples are preserved in saline, and the tubes taken back to the UK for analysis by one of Elephants Alive’s collaborators, Dr. Hannah Mumby from Cambridge University. One can just imagine the Customs Officer asking “anything to declare?” on arrival at Heathrow!

For 20 years, the inspirational Elephants Alive organisation has been monitoring the social structure and movements of one of southern Africa’s largest continuous elephant populations. They have collared more than 60 elephants in over 100 collaring operations throughout the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, and have developed an individual elephant identification database of nearly 2000 elephants in the Greater Kruger Area. Their long term research is providing fundamental information for elephant management and protection; it is informing SANParks, conservation bodies and landowners on seasonal movements, sustainability of trophy hunting, impact on vegetation– and sadly now is also identifying poaching hotspots.

We know much less about male elephants than females, yet males could be more at risk from being involved in human-elephant conflicts such as crop raiding, and of course big bulls are top of the trophy hunters’ hit list. So Elephants Alive have always focussed their research around the mapping of male elephant movements and their social interactions via the long-term ID database.

Recently, the Bull Elephant Network Project under the guidance of Hannah, is taking recordings of the bull’s  vocal communications and trying to understand the genetic relatedness between bulls.

Our day in the field starts at dawn, with researchers Ronnie Makukule and Jessica Wilmot who home in on an individual collared elephants using a special Google tracking link developed by Save the Elephants.

Today we are locating Classic – a majestic 40 year old bull in his prime, and instantly identifiable with his broken right tusk.

With the latest technology, it is incredible that we can be deep in the African bush, and yet pick up a signal on an iPad, showing approximately where Classic is.  Once homed in on the area, Ronnie uses a radio telemetry aerial to precisely locate the bull.

And coming round a corner, there he is, hanging out with four of his mates – boys at the waterhole.  There is much jostling, jousting, splashing, mud bathing, tree rubbing and trunk tussling – before each bull wanders off in his own direction.  With these incredible sentient creatures, it would be wonderful to know what is really going on, what is being said, and who is related to who ….

Jess and Ronnie sit silently, holding a microphone aloft, recording the rumbles and noting the associated behaviours, so we can try and understand their “language”.  Sometimes an elephant will come and investigate the researchers – obviously trying to understand what we’re up to, whilst we’re studying them!

Please note that inexperienced observers should not encourage or seek out such behaviour in wild elephants.

Photos are taken of all the associating animals to add to the long-term database that Elephants Alive has maintained. Dung samples are collected and carefully labelled for each individual elephant.  to work out the genetic relatedness of these bulls. The dung will also be tested in the USA by another collaborator of Elephants Alive, Dr. Kari Morfeld from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute  for stress hormones to add yet another level of fascinating information to our understanding of the bull society.

Thanks to Elephants Alive and their research projects, we are beginning to get an insight into the sophisticated communications and social structures of these complex and magnificent pachyderms. Most importantly, we can apply this understanding of their lives and behaviour to help African elephant conservation.

Guidelines for Safe Elephant Viewing

By Michelle Henley

We are proud to announce that a new brochure has been produced to ensure that people know how to behave around elephants. Mac, the iconic bull who represents one of the large tuskers of Kruger and who has been tracked by Elephants Alive since early 2002 until his death in 2013 due to natural causes, features on the cover and we are pleased to have immortalised him in this way.

Michelle Henley illustrated and provided the photos for the brochure and together with the other Trustees of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group of South Africa (ESAG) crafted the text. Elephants Alive has a number of printed brochures available as examples and reprints can be organised depending on the demand. We trust that you will find this compact and user-friendly guide of use if ever you need to share space with elephants.


Vulture-Tree Links

By Michelle Henley

South Africa’s white-backed vultures are now Critically Endangered, and their numbers continue to plummet. The main cause of this rapid decline are indiscriminate poisonings, where the birds are drawn to poisoned baits, use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine, and deliberate targeting by poachers, as the presence of vultures can alert authorities to illegally killed big game carcasses.

Since 2008, Elephants Alive has been monitoring, on an annual basis, 226 trees used by raptors and white backed vultures as nesting sites to understand the influence of elephant impact on these sites. Recently we completed our annual survey.

We have found that the overall elephant impact was low, irrespective of the tree or nest type (i.e. vultures or raptors). There was no difference in elephant impact type and severity between trees with nests and those without nests, although trees with nests were taller and had a lower probability of insect and fungus present. Hence accumulated elephant impact on older trees could render these trees as unusable in the long run because of increased arthropod and fungus attack over time. Bark-stripping was found to be the most prolific elephant impact type for trees used by either vultures or raptors. There was relatively lower elephant impact on trees used by vultures compared to those used by raptors. Vultures generally nest in the upper crown compared to raptors that prefer nesting lower in the tree canopy. Consequently, vultures may be more sensitive to die-back on smaller branches than raptors because they depend on the buoyancy of these smaller branches to construct their nests.

Large trees were found to die much slower than what nests were disappearing. Hence changes in nest survival cannot be attributed to changes in tree survival alone but indicate that other factors are at play and we need todetermine at what scale are these other factors influencing the nesting potential of vultures and raptors, be they climatic changes or changes in the survival rate of breeding pairs. On the bright side of the future nesting sites for these valuable large tree-nesting birds, our results show that there is a high regeneration or recruitment of nesting sites on which elephants had an overall negligible influence during the study period.

An unexpected nest occupant
Bones of a vulture chick
Shelf fungus on tree – indicative of compromised survival
Individual tree labels
Data capturing by Michelle and Robin
Vulture Nest