Ever since I can remember, African elephants have filled me with a sense of complete awe. They are the largest land mammal alive today on planet Earth, weighing up to seven tons, standing three and a half meters tall at the shoulder. They can eat up to 400 kilos of food in a day, and they disperse vital plant seeds across thousands of kilometers during their 50-to-60-year life span.
Central to their compassionate and complex society are the matriarchs. These female, strong leaders nurture the young and navigate their way through the challenges of the African bush to find food, water and security. Their societies are so complex, we're yet to still fully tease apart how they communicate, how they verbalize to each other, how their dialects work. And we don't really understand yet how they navigate the landscape, remembering the safest places to cross a river.
I'm pretty sure that like me, most of you in this room have a similar positive emotional response to these most magnificent of all animals. It's really hard not to have watched a documentary, learned about their intelligence or, if you've been lucky, to see them for yourselves on safari in the wild. But I wonder how many of you have been truly, utterly terrified by them.
I was lucky to be brought up in Southern Africa by two teacher parents who had long holidays but very short budgets. And so we used to take our old Ford Cortina Estate, and with my sister, we'd pile in the back, take our tents and go camping in the different game reserves in Southern Africa. It really was heaven for a young, budding zoologist like myself.
But I remember even at that young age that I found the tall electric fences blocking off the game parks quite divisive. Sure, they were keeping elephants out of the communities, but they also kept communities out of their wild spaces. It really was quite a challenge to me at that young age. It was only when I moved to Kenya at the age of 14, when I got to connect to the vast, wild open spaces of East Africa. And it is here now that I feel truly, instinctively, really at home.
I spent many, many happy years studying elephant behavior in a tent, in Samburu National Reserve, under the guideship of professor Fritz Vollrath and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, studying for my PhD and understanding the complexities of elephant societies. But now, in my role as head of the human-elephant coexistence program for Save the Elephants, we're seeing so much change happening so fast that it's urged a change in some of our research programs. No longer can we just sit and understand elephant societies or study just how to stop the ivory trade, which is horrific and still ongoing. We're having to change our resources more and more to look at this rising problem of human-elephant conflict, as people and pachyderms compete for space and resources.
It was only as recently as the 1970s that we used to have 1.2 million elephants roaming across Africa. Today, we're edging closer to only having 400,000 left. And at the same time period, the human population has quadrupled, and the land is being fragmented at such a pace that it's really hard to keep up with. Too often, these migrating elephants end up stuck inside communities, looking for food and water but ending up breaking open water tanks, breaking pipes and, of course, breaking into food stores for food. It's really a huge challenge. Can you imagine the terror of an elephant literally ripping the roof off your mud hut in the middle of the night and having to hold your children away as the trunk reaches in, looking for food in the pitch dark?
These elephants also trample and eat crops, and this is traditionally eroding away that tolerance that people used to have for elephants. And sadly, we're losing these animals by the day and, in some countries, by the hour — to not only ivory poaching but this rapid rise in human-elephant conflict as they compete for space and resources.
It's a massive challenge. I mean, how do you keep seven-ton pachyderms, that often come in groups of 10 or 12, out of these very small rural farms when you're dealing with people who are living on the very edge of poverty? They don't have big budgets. How do you resolve this issue?
Well, one issue is, you can just start to build electric fences, and this is happening across Africa, we're seeing this more and more. But they are dividing up areas and blocking corridors. And I'm telling you, these elephants don't think much of it either, particularly if they're blocking a really special water hole where they need water, or if there's a very attractive female on the other side. It doesn't take long to knock down one of these poles. And as soon as there's a gap in the fence, they go back, talk to their mates and suddenly they're all through, and now you have 12 elephants on the community side of the fence. And now you're really in trouble. People keep trying to come up with new designs for electric fences. Well, these elephants don't think much of those either.
So rather than having these hard-line, straight, electric, really divisive migratory-blocking fences, there must be other ways to look at this challenge. I'm much more interested in holistic and natural methods to keep elephants and people apart where necessary. Simply talking to people, talking to rural pastoralists in northern Kenya who have so much knowledge about the bush, we discovered this story that they had that elephants would not feed on trees that had wild beehives in them. Now this was an interesting story. As the elephants were foraging on the tree, they would break branches and perhaps break open a wild beehive. And those bees would fly out of their natural nests and sting the elephants.
Now if the elephants got stung, perhaps they would remember that this tree was dangerous and they wouldn't come back to that same site. It seems impossible that they could be stung through their thick skin — elephant skin is around two centimeters thick. But it seems that they sting them around the watery areas, around the eyes, behind the ears, in the mouth, up the trunk. You can imagine they would remember that very quickly. And it's not really one sting that they're scared of. African bees have a phenomenal ability: when they sting in one site, they release a pheromone that triggers the rest of the bees to come and sting the same site. So it's not one beesting that they're scared of — it's perhaps thousands of beestings, coming to sting in the same area — that they're afraid of. And of course, a good matriarch would always keep her young away from such a threat. Young calves have much thinner skins, and it's potential that they could be stung through their thinner skins.
So for my PhD, I had this unusual challenge of trying to work out how African elephants and African bees would interact, when the theory was that they wouldn't interact at all. How was I going to study this? Well, what I did was I took the sound of disturbed African honey bees, and I played it back to elephants resting under trees through a wireless speaker system, so I could understand how they would react as if there were wild bees in the area. And it turns out that they react quite dramatically to the sound of African wild bees. Here we are, playing the bee sounds back to this amazing group of elephants. You can see the ears going up, going out, they're turning their heads from side to side, one elephant is flicking her trunk to try and smell. There's another elephant that kicks one of calves on the ground to tell it to get up as if there is a threat. And one elephant triggers a retreat, and soon the whole family of elephants are running after her across the savannah in a cloud of dust.
(Sound of bees buzzing)
(Sound of bees ends)
Now I've done this experiment many, many times, and the elephants almost always flee. Not only do they run away, but they dust themselves as they're running, as if to knock bees out of the air. And we placed infrasonic microphones around the elephants as we did these experiments. And it turns out they're communicating to each other in infrasonic rumbles to warn each other of the threat of bees and to stay away from the area.
So these behavioral discoveries really helped us understand how elephants would react should they hear or see bee sounds. This led me to invent a novel design for a beehive fence, which we are now building around small, one-to-two-acre farms on the most vulnerable frontline areas of Africa where humans and elephants are competing for space. These beehive fences are very, very simple. We use 12 beehives and 12 dummy hives to protect one acre of farmland. Now a dummy hive is simply a piece of plywood which we cut into squares, paint yellow and hang in between the hives. We're basically tricking the elephants into thinking there are more beehives than there really are. And of course, it literally halves the cost of the fence. So there's a hive and a dummy hive and a beehive and now dummy hive, every 10 meters around the outside boundary. They're held up by posts with a shade roof to protect the bees, and they're interconnected with a simple piece of plain wire, which goes all the way around, connecting the hives.
So if an elephant tries to enter the farm, he will avoid the beehive at all cost, but he might try and push through between the hive and the dummy hive, causing all the beehives to swing as the wire hits his chest. And as we know from our research work, this will cause the elephants to flee and run away — and hopefully remember not to come back to that risky area. The bees swarm out of the hive, and they really scare the elephants away.
These beehive fences we're studying using things like camera traps to help us understand how elephants are responding to them at night time, which is when most of the crop raiding occurs. And we found in our study farms that we're keeping up to 80 percent of elephants outside of the boundaries of these farms. And the bees and the beehive fences are also pollinating the fields. So we're having a great reduction both in elephant crop raids and a boost in yield through the pollination services that the bees are giving to the crops themselves.
The strength of the beehive fences is really important — the colonies have to be very strong. So we're trying to help farmers grow pollinator-friendly crops to boost their hives, boost the strength of their bees and, of course, produce the most amazing honey. This honey is so valuable as an extra livelihood income for the farmers. It's a healthy alternative to sugar, and in our community, it's a very valuable present to give a mother-in-law, which makes it almost priceless.
We now bottle up this honey, and we've called this wild beautiful honey Elephant-Friendly Honey. It is a fun name, but it also attracts attention to our project and helps people understand what we're trying to do to save elephants. We're working now with so many women in over 60 human-elephant conflict sites in 19 countries in Africa and Asia to build these beehive fences, working very, very closely with so many farmers but particularly now with women farmers, helping them to live better in harmony with elephants.
One of the things we're trying to do is develop a toolbox of options to live in better harmony with these massive pachyderms. One of those issues is to try and get farmers, and women in particular, to think different about what they're planting inside their farms as well. So we're looking at planting crops that elephants don't particularly want to eat, like chillies, ginger, Moringa, sunflowers. And of course, the bees and the beehive fences love these crops too, because they have beautiful flowers. One of these plants is a spiky plant called sisal — you may know this here as jute. And this amazing plant can be stripped down and turned into a weaving product.
We're working with these amazing women now who live daily with the challenges of elephants to use this plant to weave into baskets to provide an alternative income for them. We've just started construction only three weeks ago on a women's enterprise center where we're going to be working with these women not only as expert beekeepers but as amazing basket weavers; they're going to be processing chili oils, sunflower oils, making lip balms and honey, and we're somewhere on our way to helping these participating farmers live with better eco-generating projects that live and work better with living with elephants.
So whether it's matriarchs or mothers or researchers like myself, I do see more women coming to the forefront now to think differently and more boldly about the challenges that we face. With more innovation, and perhaps with some more empathy towards each other, I do believe we can move from a state of conflict with elephants to true coexistence.