Thinking outside the box on human-wildlife conflict | Global Ideas | DW | 02.09.2014
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Global Ideas

Thinking outside the box on human-wildlife conflict

As the human population grows, there is increasing conflict between people and wildlife for space and resources in some areas. Some conservationists are getting creative by turning to bees and chilli for solutions.

People building a beehive along a fence (Photo: Dr Lucy King, www.elephantsandbees.com)

Beehive fences are very much community projects

An exploding human population implies a heightened need for agricultural land. But, in areas where big cats and elephants roam wild and free, that can come at a costly price for small-scale farmers. With their own livelihoods to protect, the last thing they can afford to accommodate is crop and cattle raiding wildlife. Yet by the same token, the animal instinct is one of survival. They will go where the food is.

Against that backdrop, it is easy to see how trampling elephants or marauding lions can lead to conflict that can result in fatalities on both sides. It is harder, however, to come up with solutions that protect farmers, their land and endangered species. Harder, but by no means impossible.

One ingenious idea, which not only mitigates human wildlife conflict, but simultaneously generates another stream of revenue for those involved, is known as the “Elephants & Bees Project.” (http://elephantsandbees.com/) Using her knowledge of elephantine nervousness around African honey bees and irregular movement, Lucy King, research associate with the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, set out to create an inexpensive structure that would save crops from giant plodding feet.

A fence made of bees

After years of working with Kenyan farmers on different ideas, King came up with a beehive fence, which she describes as a “higgeldy piggeldy” collection of moving hives on different levels. “They are not designed to be stationary,” she told Global Ideas, “so the whole fence is a creaking, swinging, shimmering, noisy, wobbly sort of experience all the way around the farm.”
King’s approach is perfect for elephants, who get used to uniformity, and would eventually work out how to break through a linear electric barrier. It has been so successful that the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) has included the unusual fence in its action plan for the next 20 years. This means more such constructions will go up around small-scale farms, and more locals will benefit as a result.

A woman standing next to a special kind of fence - made of bee hives (Photo: Dr Lucy King/www.elephantsandbees.com)

Zoologist Lucy King spent years working on the beehive fence. Its varying heights make it irregular enough to deter elephants seeking to raid crops

“Another advantage to the bees is that they create a second income for the farmers,” King said. “We have honey and can make candles, and we hope to see an increase in yield, not only as a result of less crop raiding, but from increased pollination of the flowers and crops within the farms.”

‘Chili bombs’ to deter elephants

“Elephants and Bees” is not the only example of a third species being introduced to smooth the way for peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife. Other non-lethal projects include the introduction of Anatolian Shepherd dogs to Namibian farms where livestock is easy prey for big cats.

According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CFF), the use of the hounds, which have been protecting sheep from wolves in Turkey for 6,000 years, is having the desired effect with reports of fewer losses.

Farmers in Zambia meanwhile are experimenting with chili to deter crop trampling elephants. They mix elephant dung with chili and water to make what are known technically as “chili bombs.” Once dry, the balls are lit with hot coals and strategically placed around the precious fields where they burn for hours. The smell they give off is pungent enough to offend elephants’ sensitive trunks and make them keep their distance.

Although it currently costs to buy in the chili required for the mix, local NGOs are working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to produce it and ultimately make it a cash crop.

Maintaining bio-cultural diversity

Beth Kaplin, director of the Center for Tropical Ecology & Conservation at Antioch University in New England, describes solutions that maintain the functioning of the ecological system while simultaneously respecting the needs and concerns of local people as examples of bio-cultural diversity. And that means working on a micro level.

“There has to be close collaboration with communities, so you don’t just have strategies developed in the West and brought in,” she told Global Ideas. “You might, for example, have a species which is very important in a particular culture, and which can be used to encourage conservation thinking.”

She cites “Lion Guardians,” a group working in Tanzania and Kenya to transform the local culture of killing lions in conflict situations into a reverence for the animals. Project leaders work with Maasai warriors - who traditionally slayed lions in their role as protectors of a community - to help them understand the predators’ cultural, tourism and conservation value.

In their role as appointed lion guardians, Maasai maintain their leadership role, but now protect both their people and the animals that threaten them. They work with farmers to strengthen thornbush enclosures known as “bomas,” search for livestock reported missing, and monitor lion movements so they can inform herders about which grazing areas to avoid.

In 2011, the Guardians helped to reinforce 244 ‘bomas,’ 99 percent of which reported no subsequent lion invasions. In 2010 and 2011, they helped to find more than 12,000 head of missing livestock, which amounts to almost $112,00 in monetary terms.

“There are a lot of interesting approaches out there at the moment,” Kaplin continued. “They are still fairly new, so we need some long-term monitoring, but I think what we are seeing is exciting, and I feel really encouraged.”