From Drones to Disney, Smart Minds Are Saving Africa's Elephants, Tapping Into Their Acestral Fear Of Honeybees

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From Drones to Disney, Smart Minds Are Saving Africa's Elephants, Tapping Into Their Acestral Fear Of Honeybees

Send in the Drones

Today's news is focused on a different form of innovation in the struggle to save African elephants from extinction.

In 2016, researchers from Duke University went to Gabon to monitor the country's declining elephant herds. The team took along three drones for the purpose of counting the elephants, following their herds and mapping their migration patterns. 

Describing the project, The Atlantic wrote: "The elephants noticed the drones, which hovered anywhere from 25 feet to 300 feet above them. And it wasn’t just that the elephants noticed them; in many cases, the elephants were clearly agitated. Some of them took off running. In at least one case, an elephant used her trunk to hurl mud in the drone’s direction. “She had her baby with her,” said Missy Cummings, the director of Duke’s Robotics Lab."

Initially confused, the researchers soon made the connection between the reactions of the elephants and the fact that the drones sounded like bees. 

Air Shepherd, a program launched by the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, is also simulating the threat of bee stings in a successful effort to trigger the same response among elephants as the real-deal experience.

The program launched in Malawi, where researchers discovered that the noise of quadcopters could spook elephants. “They sound like bees,” explains Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, the program's head of drone operations. In addition to its anti-poaching efforts, Air Shepherd now also flies the buzzing quadcopters along crop fences and around Liwonde National Park as an elephant deterrent. Drones are not yet legal in every African country, but Von Elgg thinks the idea will eventually fly in more locations. “One drone is enough to move a herd of 100 elephants,” he says.

This 2017 PBS segment shot in Tanzania showcases the effective intersection of drones and elephants in that country. The researchers remark that while elephants frequently become wise to efforts to manage them, so far they are not hip to the reality that the drones are not real bees. This may be due to the ancestral memories that elephants possess. Since bees have been a problem for elephants for thousands of years -- or longer -- it may take a very long time to eliminate this fearful memory.  When there is a mix of drones and real honeybees in an area, the elephants may never learn to ignore drones while fleeing from honeybees.