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.

Kevin, Kudu and Kirinyaga








Kevin was the talented young naturalist who was our guide and driver when we visited the Lewa Conservancy Trust, north of Mount Kenya, many years ago. At sundown it was he who spotted the kudu in deep cover long before they emerged from the brush for us to see them. Wildlife photos tend to give you the wrong idea of what game spotting is really like. Often the sightings are frustratingly vague and fleeting. The second kudu shot is not really in focus but then it shows how it was – beautiful creatures melting silently into the bush.

In the final photo you can see Grevy’s Zebra, a special focus of the conservation effort at Lewa. Kevin said he called them Micky Mouse because of their rounded ears. Their stripes are much finer than the common Burchell’s zebra.

In the far distance are the misty spires of Mount Kenya, which  local people also know as Kirinyaga. The mountain top is one of the dwelling places of Ngai, the Creator of All, and has been considered a sacred place  for centuries – long before missionaries set foot in East Africa and tried to teach them about one God.

Lewa was once a colonial cattle farm, but now it is a private conservation enterprise working alongside local communities to improve the quality of life for humans and animals alike. In consequence, they have an impressive anti-poaching record. See the video below and take heart in the fact that conservation in Africa can also be a success story.