An innovative project is using the elephant’s innate fear of honey bees to protect subsistence farmers and elephants from injury and death.
Whether elephants are afraid of mice, or simply surprised by their movement, has long been debated, but there is science-based evidence that elephants are afraid of honey bees.
Oxford University researcher Dr Lucy King started a project in 2007 born out of local knowledge that suggested African elephants are scared of honey bees. Dr King carried out scientific studies using playback experiments where honey bee recordings are played to unsuspecting elephants.
Remarkable video footage shows a herd of relaxed elephants promptly retreating when they hear the sound of bees.
African honey bees are highly aggressive says Dr King, and although elephants have a thick skin, she believes they are prone to being stung behind their ears, on their eyes, and up their trunk. Local people tell of an elephant’s extreme pain after disturbing a beehive in a tree. Matriarchs seem to have passed this knowledge down through generations, says King, making their retreat behaviour a reliable outcome from bee encounters.
Led by Dr King, the award-winning Elephants and Bees Research Project, a collaboration between Save the Elephants, Oxford University and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, was set up to tackle the human-elephant conflict.
Even with the international ivory trade ban by CITES in 1989, underfunding of wildlife management and protection has led to elephant population depletion in some African countries. Save the Elephants reports that 100,000 elephants in Africa were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012. Elephants are being poached at a rate that could see species extinction within a couple of decades.
Yet in some Eastern and Southern African countries that have improved their wildlife protection and management, elephant numbers have been rising. However, these countries are also experiencing rising human populations, and human settlements are encroaching on elephant habitat. Elephant habitat is becoming fragmented as elephant populations are separated by human developments.