The Buzz on Elephants
By Peter Kobel
Western conservationists have sometimes been criticized for placing greater value on endangered species than on their human neighbors, creating reserves protected by laws and guns while neglecting the needs of local communities. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, however, is currently looking for ways to advance “the new conservation paradigm,” a model that respects the rights of indigenous peoples. In truth, the paradigm is not so new. Conserving at-risk wildlife and habitat and providing sustainable livelihoods for local communities has long been the “holy grail” of conservationists. One can’t exist without the other.
Last week, African-born, Oxford-trained biologist Lucy King won an award for a promising solution to a longstanding problem in Africa—elephants raiding crops—that elegantly addresses both sides of this issue. She and her colleagues have developed and successfully tested a beehive fence that scares savannah elephants away from farmers’ fields. (Yes, size doesn’t matter. The planet’s largest land animal is afraid of being stung by tiny African honeybees and flees when it hears them buzzing.)
King, who works in Kenya for the NGO Save the Elephants, received the prestigious UN Environmental Programme/Convention on Migratory Species award in Norway at a CMS meeting. “By reducing conflicts between people and elephants, Dr. Lucy King has designed a constructive solution that considers the needs of migratory animals but also the economic benefits to the local communities linked to species conservation,” said CMS Executive Secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema in a release.
While King ostensibly won the award for her doctoral thesis on the concept, it was clearly her two-year pilot project that gathered notice. The beehive fence was used by farming communities in three different districts and by three different tribes in Kenya. In 90 recorded would-be raids, the elephants were deterred 84 times, a remarkable success rate. An important bonus is that beekeeping generates as much income as other forms of farm work. (A PDF on how to construct beehive fences is available on King’s website.)
Which brings us back to the larger picture. Wildlife reserves will always be crucial, especially for very vulnerable species and large predators. But, as Elizabeth Bennett, vice president of species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told me in an email: “Indeed, animals do not recognize boundaries and often use land outside reserves for some of the year, or to gain access to vital resources, or to move between protected areas. So in very many places, conserving them outside reserves is critical.”
She continued: “Wildlife conservation can only succeed and be sustainable in the long term if the needs and aspirations of local people are met, and if the local communities are supportive of conservation. Wildlife conservation organizations recognize that. Here at WCS, we do so by looking through the lens of ‘sustainable landscapes’—ones in which the needs of both wildlife and humans can be met, often through zoning into areas of strict protection, sustainable-resource extraction, and intensive human use. The balance between those is locally specific, but achieving it is critically important.”
In other words, environmentalists have come to realize that we’re all in this together. King’s project, which will be scaled up in other regions soon, brilliantly embodies this notion.
Peter Kobel, who is pursuing a certificate at CERC, has worked for a number of nonprofit environmental organizations. He is on Twitter as @TheEcoist.