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Co-existence with Giants

By Katarzyna Nowak, Safina Center Fellow

When I arrived in the Udzungwa Mountains of southern Tanzania in 2008, the forested hills seemed to roll on uninterrupted. I moved into a small house painted sky-blue – one in a row of three 2-bedroom houses, with generous verandas and breathtaking views, at the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center. The Center is a field station managed by Tanzania National Parks currently in partnership with a science museum in Italy and a natural history museum in Denmark. I had come to study the sister species of the Zanzibar red colobus monkey, whose conservation had been the focus of my doctoral thesis.

My house at the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

But it was around this time that corridors between the Udzungwa Mountains and other protected areas were being rapidly blocked by expanding plantations and agriculture. Suddenly compressed and isolated, the mountains expelled their refuging savanna elephants into the surrounding landscape. “Elephant numbers are increasing!” was the general perception of local people. The corridor loss, documented by my colleague Trevor Jones, coincided with an emergence of crop-use by elephant bulls. Some villagers resorted to calling the district game officer to shoot and kill “problem” elephants. Problem animal control – the killing of elephants and other wildlife to protect crops, property, life, livestock – has been official policy in Tanzania since 1921 (when the country was still under British colonial rule). We had to try to understand these forest-living bush elephants better in order to mitigate the growing tensions.

Udzungwa ele high up in Afromontane. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

Jones and I initiated what became several years of study starting out with dung surveys throughout the forested mountains. We walked over 150 kilometers of transects following predetermined compass bearings and enumerated more than 2000 piles of elephant dung from 300 to above 2000 meters elevation. We looked inside the fibrous dung piles for seeds to get an idea of elephants’ diets; one tree species whose seed they disperse is Parinari excelsa that grows to 30 meters. More than once, we found mango seeds. We also measured the diameter of 200 or so dung boli that were intact enough to estimate elephant age finding that the population was young and likely still recovering from ivory poaching that lasted into at least the late 1980s (poaching was resurging again around the time we were starting our survey work in the Udzungwas).

Looking for seeds in elephant dung. Photo courtesy: Katarzyna Nowak

We befriended Ponjoli Joram, the park’s ecologist who was, at the time, the youngest park ecologist in the country. He was full of energy, wit, ideas, ambition. He also preferred the field to the office. So Joram applied to the Erasmus Mundus Masters Program in Applied Ecology and I co-supervised his thesis on elephant crop-use. At this time, local women were permitted to enter the forest weekly – without machetes – to collect bundles of firewood. They also collected elephant dung that was later soaked in buckets of water and spread atop people’s crops to deter elephants; the thinking was that elephants are coprophobic avoiding fields smeared with their own dung. The method seemed logical if laborious but before we could methodically test it, a rule prohibiting people from entering the park was enacted meaning not enough dung could be found to carry on with this method.

Joram got the farmers together to agree to trial something else: chili-oil fences. These consist of rope strung between bamboo poles. The rope was first dipped in a sticky mixture of hot red chili powder and dirty engine oil, as were scraps of cloth that we sourced from tailors in the village. If not for high rainfall at our site that made reapplication necessary, difficulty of sourcing engine oil, and the burning sensation left by the chili-oil mix on farmers’ hands and arms (despite gloves), it’s possible that this method could have had some success as it has elsewhere. We needed a plan C.

Ponjoli Joram & farmers repairing chili-oil fence. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

The idea I suggested was to use bees to deter elephants – a method that was being spearheaded by Dr. Lucy King in Kenya. Elephants, like other mammals, encounter wild bees in the bush and do not like to be stung. With our help, Joram applied to Fauna and Flora International’s Rapid Response Facility for emergency funding and was awarded a grant which we used to build hives then connected with wire to form fences strategically positioned between the park and farms in crop-use “hotspots.” A beehive fence consisting of 50 hives was thus erected, flowers to attract bees were planted, thatch roofs built to shield hives from direct sun and rain, and the participating farmers (some 30 of them) forged and registered a co-operative. Five years on, the initiative has continued under the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program (STEP), and expanded to four other villages. The original fence now has 150 hives and the farmers’ group has taught other communities about the beehive method. Wildlife-friendly honey is sold locally. Meanwhile, our scientific assessment of how well the beehive fence has worked is about to be published in the conservation journal Oryx.

Team with beehive. Photo courtesy: Katarzyna Nowak

The efficacy of the linear beehive fence is mixed. One of our challenges is attracting bees to hives; another is diurnal bees and increasingly nocturnal elephants (avoiding people). While we detected an overall decrease in crop visits by elephants especially after the fence was extended from 50 to 150 hives, some farms actually experienced more damage. Elephants developed strategies including walking to the end of the fence-line and into farms, breaking through (especially where hives were empty), or entering by way of existing breakage points that had not yet been repaired. Later, on their way back to the park, elephants would become “trapped” by the fence trampling crops closest to and alongside the length of the barrier.

Planted flowers under hive to attract bees. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

Still, since the beehive fence was built, villagers have not called for “problem animal control.” The take-away message seems to be that human perceptions figure as much in human-elephant co-existence as the real effectiveness of the mitigation method employed. Looking back, we wish we had gauged people’s perceptions of elephants before and after mitigation. What we have is a story of empowerment: disenfranchised farmers taking matters into their own hands, building fences that yield honey and a pollination service and also deter elephants enough to enable co-existence.

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