The recent brouhaha over GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons killing an elephant in Zimbabwe got me thinking. Elephants are smart creatures. And people are smart creatures. Surely there must be a better way for the two of us to coexist.
It’s pretty well been agreed now that Parson’s behavior was not only distasteful and arrogant (rich white hunter kills dangerous marauding elephant, saves poor villagers, lets them eat meat, then gloats) but was wrong on a number of ethical and scientific grounds as well.
Elephants raiding crops are a problem. That much is true.
Elephants require an enormous amount of food, upwards of 150 kg of food per day for a wild Indian Elephant; more like 300 kg per day for a large African elephant. Human encroachment on their land and the easy-pickings (and often high caloric value) of a home garden or cultivated field, combine to make them more than just a nuisance, but an actual danger, both to a farmer’s livelihood and to human lives.
Sadly, the violence goes both ways. Every year in India more than 100 people and 40-50 elephants are killed during elephant crop raids. [i] In Sri Lanka, as many as three elephants are killed every week, resulting in 10 -15 elephant orphans a year. Scientist refer to this clash of species as Human-Elephant Conflict or HEC.
Those of us who only know elephants from zoos and wildlife documentaries might assume that the people who live along side these beloved animals must care as much about them as we do. And it’s true; in many cases local citizens do love and respect these enormous creatures. But conflict breeds intolerance and people, many of whom are already struggling to subsist, grow tired and angry over having to maintain constant vigilance to prevent elephants from destroying an entire year’s worth of crops in a single night.
Obviously, the comprehensive answer is to create and enforce a balance between elephant and human needs through habitat protection, maintenance of elephant corridors, and careful planning around human settlement and agriculture. But in the short-term, farmers and local citizens do need safe and effective methods for keeping out problem elephants.
So, here I’d like to put together a list of ways to repel elephants. All of these are being tested and/or used in various parts of the world. Admittedly, they don’t all work in every case and they each have shortcomings that include, at the very least, expense, availability, practicality, and long-term effectiveness against an animal that learns quickly.
But my point is to show the ingenuity of people – both scientists and those directly affected by the elephants – and the variety of solutions that have been applied to the problem, none of which involve bringing in a Hemingway-wannabe to blow the offending creature to smithereens.
The simplest (and probably least expensive) way to deter elephants is for farmers to employ patrols to guard crops. In Asia, guards mounted on domesticated elephants patrol the perimeter roads of large plantations, using noise-makers, bright lights (at night) and other deterrents to drive away encroaching elephants. Small farmers hire unskilled workers who patrol in groups to drive away crop-raiding elephants.
It has been pointed out that farmers in elephant areas need to accept that guarding is always going to be a part of agriculture. They need to build it into their farming practice. However, guarding, if not done carefully, is exceedingly dangerous and accounts for a large number of human-elephant conflicts and deaths of both species.
The Buzzing of the Bees
In short, African elephants are known to avoid acacia trees occupied by honey bees. This has led to the invention of the “bee hive fence”— a regular fence strung with beehives made out of hollow logs. If an elephant tries to push through the fence, the hive swings, the bees become agitated, and the elephant flees.
Not only does it work, but in 2010, Save the Elephants started an “Elephant-Friendly Honey” program to help farmers get the best price for their honey from beehive fences. The hope is that the program will provide jobs, income, honey, and will eventually become self-sustaining.
It is common practice, both in Asia and Africa, to use loud noise to scare away intrusive elephants. Noisemakers include firecrackers, pipe cannons, vehicle horns, shouts, and rifle-shots. Elephants do grow used to such sounds, especially when the sounds are generated automatically. But loud noise is an effective short-term deterrent against naïve elephants, especially when combined with confrontation by a large group of guards.
Bright lights, oil lamps, and fire are sometimes used along the perimeter of a farmed area. As with sound however, elephants easily habituate to oil lamps and fires. There have even been reports of elephants putting out fires by stamping or dousing them with water.
In some areas people burn elephant dung or any other material that will smoulder and create heavy acrid smoke. (Sometimes even tires, but that’s not encouraged.) Both the fire and the scent of smoke work as repellents, but wind and weather are a factor, and, as mentioned above, elephants are known to put out small fires.
While not yet used, it may eventually be possible to use elephant pheromones to control their behaviour. Young male elephants in musth (their breeding period), for instance, release a honey-like odour to broadcast their inexperience in order to avoid conflict with adult males. Mature musth males broadcast malodorous combinations that deter young males. Chemically modulating male behaviour may be one way to control elephant movement and help reduce human-elephant conflict. [vi]
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Capsaicin is the chemical in chili peppers that makes them hot. Since 1997 farmers in Africa have been using the capsaicin to repel elephants. The simplest method consists of planting a wide row of chili peppers around cultivated fields and gardens.
So successful has this been that the chilies themselves have become a cash crop for farmers. The Elephant Pepper Development Trust now assists farmer in cultivating their crops and managing elephants. In addition, the Trust formed two companies — African Spices Company in Zambia and the Chili Pepper Company in Zimbabwe – that help farmers produce, sell and distribute the chili peppers and products such as hot sauces, jams, and relishes.
Sprays made from capsicum oleoresin have also been used successfully against African Elephants[vii] and are commercially available in Africa. Airborne capsaicin is a strong deterrent, working to quickly drive elephants out of fields. The main difficulty with the aerosol method is that the spray is subject to wind and other weather conditions. It is also an irritant to humans and can remain in the air long after it is sprayed at the elephants.
However, applying capsaicin oil mixed with grease to a solid barrier such as a fence or even a string or rope suspended above a fence has the same effect on the animals, repelling them upon contact or close proximity. [viii]
Working a bit like invisible dog fencing, geo-fencing is a means of detecting radio-collared elephants that cross a virtual fence line (sometimes, but not necessarily, following a real fence). When an elephant with a collar passes through the virtual barrier, an SMS message is sent to the wildlife management center, along with GPS coordinates of the elephant. Rangers in a vehicle can then intercept the elephant and chase it off of the property. This method has been successfully used in east Africa where the elephants quickly learned where the invisible lines were and not to cross them.
Electric fences are a very effective way to prevent crop-raiding by elephants. [ix] They are, however, expensive to install and they require a great deal of maintenance. Increasingly, community elephant fencing projects are being funded externally or by corporations. Today, in Kenya, for instance, thousands of kilometers of electric fence now protect farmland and maintain elephant corridors.
Ditches, Moats, walls, and other barricades
In Asia ditches and moats have been used as barriers against elephants with limited success. Digging and maintaining ditches is expensive, especially in wet areas subject to soil erosion. In addition, elephants are not intimidated by narrow stretches of water and they quickly learn to kick the sides of trenches to break them down.
Stone walls are very effective in keeping out elephants, particularly when used as a base for a simple electric fence. They are, however, expenses, and stone is not always available.
Some communities have turned to growing more enticing crops to attract elephants away from farmland. In Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu forest is growing elephant delicacies, including bamboo grass, in about 150 acres of the preserve that borders horticultural and agricultural fields.
Training & Conditioning
As I mentioned, elephants are smart. It appears that crop-raiding behavior is learned and is passed down through generations – often by older males to younger ones. (Males are thought to raid crops more often than females because they are more willing to take chances in order to get a higher calorie reward)
So if elephants can teach each other, perhaps there is a way humans can modify elephant behavior through a bit of basic Skinnerian operant conditioning. Elephants avoid the sound of bees because they have learned that a bee sting is painful.
Wouldn’t it work just as well to use a punishment (capsaicin spray) combined with a novel sound, such as a specific whistle or siren, to teach elephants to avoid the sound of the whistle? With consistent use across elephant communities, it’s conceivable that all elephants could learn (and then pass along the lesson) that the whistle is to be avoided at all costs – just like the bees.
Repairing the relationship between farmers and elephants is paramount. Elephants must be able to eat and wander without being killed; farmers must be able to farm without fear of elephants. The best solutions are those that are safe, affordable and sustainable. Even better are those that allow farmers to profit while maintaining a positive relationship with the elephants (as in the honey and chili pepper trade).
Only with innovative solutions like these in place, can we hope to put an end to the bravado killing of elephants by the likes of Bob Parsons.
[i] Arivazhagan, C. and B. Ramakrishnan. “Conservation perspective of Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) in Tamil Nadu,Southern India.” IJBT (2010) 1(Special Issue): 15-22
[ii] Vollrath, Fritz, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton. “African bees to control African elephants.” Naturwissenschaften 89, no. 11 (2002): 508-511.
[iii] King, L. E, A. Lawrence, I. Douglas-Hamilton, and F. Vollrath. “Beehive fence deters crop-raiding elephants.” African Journal of Ecology 47, no. 2 (2009): 131–137.
[iv] King, L. E, I. Douglas-Hamilton, and F. Vollrath. “African elephants run from the sound of disturbed bees.” Current Biology 17, no. 19 (2007): R832–R833.
[v] King, L. E. “The interaction between the African elephant (Loxodonta africana africana) and the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) and its potential application as an elephant deterrent” (n.d.).
[vi] Rasmussen, L. E. L., H. S. Riddle, and V. Krishnamurthy. “Chemical communication: Mellifluous matures to malodorous in musth.” Nature 415, no. 6875 (February 28, 2002): 975-976.
[vii] Osborn, F. V. “Capsicum oleoresin as an elephant repellent: field trials in the communal lands of Zimbabwe.” The Journal of wildlife management 66, no. 3 (2002): 674–677.
[viii] Sitati and Walpole, “Assessing Farm-Based Measures for Mitigating Human-Elephant Conflict in Transmara District, Kenya.”
[ix] Kioko, J., P. Muruthi, P. Omondi, P. I Chiyo, and G. Cumming. “The performance of electric fences as elephant barriers in Amboseli, Kenya.” South African Journal of Wildlife Research 38, no. 1 (2008): 52–58.