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Uganda: Plan Bee helps farmers thwart crop-raiding elephants (The Guardian)

Nestled in the rolling volcanic hills of western Uganda, Queen Elizabeth National Park is famed for its natural beauty and wildlife. The park’s varied animal life has spawned a prosperous tourist industry. But more recently, animals have been destroying, rather than supporting, local people’s livelihoods.

Mohamood Mwapiri is a farmer in Kibodi, a village on the edge of the park. She explains, “Elephants from the park have raided my fields for beans, maize and matooke [banana]. At its worst, the effect was close to famine. We had nothing to eat and nothing to sell – they ate or destroyed all we had.”

The Uganda Wildlife Authority, or UWA, has identified this region as a hotspot for friction between humans and animals, especially farmers and the elephants that feed on local crops.

But stopping the elephants is no easy task. Innocent Kahwa used to work for the UWA, trying to prevent elephants from raiding crops. He says, “We tried digging deep, steep-sided trenches around crops. But elephants are intelligent. They just used dirt to fill in the trenches and crossed over.”

With no effective means to stop the elephants, farmers have been forced to watch over their fields at night. They try to scare the animals off by shouting and banging empty jerry cans, or they call in the UWA to fire shots in the air.

Dr. Lucy King works for Save the Elephants, an international NGO. She explains, “Keeping watch over land all night is simply not practical for farmers who have to work during the day … Firecrackers and fire balls are dangerous and can cause grass fires. Shooting elephants with spears and guns is both illegal and incredibly dangerous, as a wounded elephant can become very aggressive.”

Dr. King was inspired to develop the beehive fence system after reading that elephants tend to avoid acacia trees with beehives. The system uses trip wires to link beehives together, forming a protective fence around land at risk from elephant raids. When the animals trip the wire, the bees are disturbed and emerge from their hives, scaring the elephants away.

Mr. Kahwa is also involved with the beehive fence project. After leaving the UWA, he became community liaison officer for Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, or VSPT. The organization helped launch the beehive fence initiative in Kibodi and the surrounding area. Mr. Kahwa explains, “We installed five demonstration hives in January to form a small fence at one of the spots where elephants cross into the village from the park, and will put up five more soon.” He adds that VSPT is training local farmers to set up and manage their own hives.

VSPT works in conjunction with the Omushaka Beekeeping Group, established by local beekeeper George Bijampola. Mr. Bijampola owns nearly 100 hives and trains aspiring beekeepers. He says, “The beehive fences have a number of advantages beyond keeping out elephants. The bees help to pollinate crops and increase yields, and farmers will be able to produce and sell honey for extra income.”

The beekeepers have an arrangement with a local social enterprise called Malaika Honey. This organization will buy honey from local farmers once they are in production. Simon Turner is the director of Malaika Honey. He says, “The beekeepers in Kibodi were paid a poor price by middle-men traders. We buy from the farmers, so we can pay them a premium price, and we’ll add value by developing markets for secondary beehive products like propolis.”

These are early days, but even the first fence seems to have helped local farmers. Ms. Mwapiri says, “Elephants haven’t come into our fields for the last two months.” But the existing fence is too small to cover every crossing point from the park to farmland. Local farmers need assistance to establish more hives and build larger fences.

Dr. King has been working with beehive fences over the border in Kenya for two years, and the news is good. She explains, “Over two years, I monitored 90 crop raids in three different communities in Kenya, and only six individual elephants managed to break through a beehive fence in all that time.”

Mr. Kahwa is hopeful that the project will take off and improve local farmers’ lives. He believes the key to success is to empower local farmers to manage the hives, and thereby protect their land and supplement their incomes. He adds, “If a few people show that they can protect their crops with the beehives and earn some extra cash selling honey, more and more will start to do what they’re doing and it will become self-sustaining.”