Elephant tribe versus Man tribe: and how the bees are helping

We’ve been watching a very heartening series on BBC i-Player The Secret Life of Elephants. It followed the magnificent conservation work being carried out by Save The Elephants, a charity that operates in Samburu, Northern Kenya, and relies on the cooperation between  the nomadic Samburu people, local smallholder farmers and scientists from Kenya and beyond.  One of the key initiatives is to put tracking collars on the matriarch leaders of particular elephant clans, and also on the large bulls who, outside the breeding season, lead more solitary lives.

Elephants may cover vast distances in the course of their annual migrations. But once they leave the national parks they are more vulnerable to poachers, and also to irate farmers who are tired of having their year’s livelihood consumed in a single night. By tracking and mapping the herds’ movements on computers, and  maintaining channels of communication with the pastoralists and farmers, Save The Elephants researchers  are working out ways to lessen conflicts, and present solutions, and above all, to secure the future for wild elephants.

The Samburu pastoralists have always been wise enough to respect elephants, and are now anxious to do what they can to protect them. This is their view on the matter:


The first man said the elephant is like us, like our brother, and we have to live together, not hunt elephant. That’s what we say we were told at the beginning. That’s what we still believe. The elephant has always been, and will always be, special to us. This is why we protect it now.

Samburu people on the importance of elephants





For farmers it is a very different matter. People are often killed trying to drive elephants out of their crops.  And so one of STE’s objectives is to work out the best place to erect elephant fencing so that elephants can be channelled away from farming communities as they pass by on their seasonal trek between the river where they congregate to breed,  and the mountain forests where they go to browse.

Fencing, though, is not always the total solution it seems. Elephants are not daft. The old bulls have learned  how to open gates onto the vast European wheat farms that lie to the west of Mount Kenya. But while the large-scale producers can tolerate some elephant grazing, smallholders cannot. For them it is a matter of living or starving.

One of the STE researchers, Dr. Lucy King has come up with a very simple, low-tech and productive approach to keeping elephants out of Kenyan farmers’ cabbage fields.  It began with the discovery that elephants will move off if they hear the sound of bees buzzing. African bees are especially aggressive, and on a very short fuse temper-wise. She thus came up with the notion of placing beehives around farm fields.

Traditional African beehives are made of lengths of hollowed-out tree trunks that are then suspended in trees. These were hung at intervals on the field perimeters, and connected up by tripwires. When the elephants tripped the wires, the hives were duly shaken and out would swarm the angry bees. Elephants would then beat a retreat, leaving farmers with both their crops and a new source of income from the honey.

As Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith was so often wont to say in The A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together.” In this case, though, it is clearly the work of the B-Team.

Copyright 2015 Tish Farrell



I’ve written more about elephants in Elecommunication: So Many Connections

And last but never least, thanks to Paula at Lost in Translation and her guest challenger, photographer Guilhem Ribart. TRIBE is the prompt. For more interpretations, please also follow this link.  I should add that my photos here were taken in Lewa Downs which is part of Save The Elephants’ sphere of operations. The original negatives are very degraded, but seem to have a new lease of life translated into B & W. In fact they also seem to capture the elephantness of elephants rather better than the colour originals, which is interesting when you think about it.

21 thoughts on “Elephant tribe versus Man tribe: and how the bees are helping

  1. Elephants are a big problem for the villagers living on the boundaries of South Luangwa national park in Zambia. The elephants leave the park in the evening to forage in the villagers’ gardens. One of my predecessors at Kakumbi health Centre treated a man who had been gored in the chest by bull elephant he was trying to scare away. I saw several patients who were injured running into their gardens at night shouting and waving burning branches. These were usually eye and leg injuries. The elephants can smell out food stored in huts, such as pumpkins, and will push the huts down to access food. I heard that some people had been killed in this manner. The local conservation trust pioneered chili pepper bombs, but these stopped worked as a preventative after a while. I visited one lodge where a marauding young elephant would push a trunk through the mesh covering the kitchen window just to steal chili powder.

    1. I suppose that’s the problem. Elephants learn too, so a solution that works niw, may not work for long. It will be interesting if they come up with something that deals with the bees.

    1. Yes, it’s so good to know that there are practical measures that can be put in place. The beehives idea anyone can do for themselves without too much expense, though they’d need to know how to deal with their local bees,

  2. What a valuable article and a source of information. I am most grateful Tish and especially for the brilliant captures. I will remind Guilhem to check out this post. Thank you.

  3. WUNDERBAR, Tish ! – there’s nothing likely to make this old broad happier than a feel-good-and-with-a-happy-ending animal story. I get so sick of hearing about the latest hideous thing man has done …
    Bees ! – ah NOO they were special. Must tell Christine about this !

  4. Great post. What a clever idea, and the elephants are smart, they don’t want bees up their trunk – yikes. 😮 Thanks for sharing Tish (and M-R).

    1. Glad to hit the mark, Shimon. Elephants are wonderful creatures, but they can be destructive too, although if humans weren’t around to see, one might say they were just being elephants.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.