From Drones to Bees, to Disney, Smart Minds Are Saving Africa's Elephants

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Bees and elephants have an adversarial relationship. In fact, elephants are afraid of bees, so afraid that the smell of an empty bee hive swinging on a fence can cause a full-grown elephant to turn around and high-tail it away from a farmer's land. 

It's not the case that a bee's stinger can penetrate the thick hide of an elephant. But when an aggressive swarm of hundreds African bees land on an elephant, stinging it in its most sensitive areas -- the trunk, mouth, eyes, behind ears and more -- the elephant suffers agonizing pain. 

Elephants & Beehive Fences

One of my favorite stories about elephant memories is the research published on AOC in 2009 about a successful pilot project in Kenya developed by Lucy King of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, who led the project with the charity Save the Elephants.

In the growing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Kenya, Lucy sought a more peaceful solution than killing elephants when they threatened farmer's crops.  Prior research confirmed that elephants could be scared away by recordings of the buzzing of angry bees. Agitated by their fear of being stung by a swarm of African bees, elephants turned away from the sound of the recordings and left the area. The initial successes remained complicated, however.

Armed with this knowledge, Lucy King's team constructed a fence of log beehives suspended on poles beneath tiny thatched roofs. The hives were connected by eight metre lengths of fencing wire. As predicted, elephants avoided the empty hives, because they detected the presence -- in the moment or the past -- of bees.  However, the majestic creatures still attempted to push through the fencing wire to get food -- before all hell broke loose.  At that moment, the hives began to swing violently as if alive and full of bees, causing the elephants to fear an imminent attack of angry, stinging bees and get as far away from the hives as possible -- and quickly. 

In her original 2009 pilot study, the beehive fence had 86 per cent fewer successful crop raids by elephants and 150 per cent fewer raiding elephants than a control farm without the fence. Lucy King's discoveries led to community programs in several African nations where real honeybees moves into the hives and farmer's began to harvest and sell honey. Lucy King's The Elephants and Bees Project, run by the nonprofit Save the Elephants, documented in a 2017 paper in Conservation Biology and the buzzing fences had an 80 percent success rate in keeping elephants away from farmers' lands. 

Even more exciting is the support Lucy King's The Elephants and Bees Project has through its new association with Disney. This marvelous video brings you up to date on the success of the project in Kenya. 


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.