You know how tweaked you get when a squirrel raids your bird feeder?
Well, imagine if that bird feeder was a field of crops—crops you need to eat to survive, crops you need to sell so your kids can go to school—and that squirrel is actually a herd of squirrels. Oh, and those squirrels weigh seven tons.
OK, those squirrels are actually elephants—smarter than squirrels and just as hungry. Let’s just say farmers in Africa and Asia have their work cut out for them.
“It’s a great economic loss when a large plot of land is destroyed by elephants,” says Nilanga Jayasinghe, a program officer with the World Wildlife Fund. “And often lives are at stake.”
To defend their homes and crops, people try to scare elephants away. And when elephants get scared, they get dangerous. All too often, confrontations result in dead humans. And dead humans lead to dead elephants.
Between 2001 and 2007, elephants in India damaged as many as 15,000 homes and tore through 20 million to 25 million acres of cropland. They also killed 300 people. And 200 elephants, in turn, lost their lives due to human-related activities.
These sorts of conflicts are an enormous problem nearly everywhere elephants still exist. The reason is simple: Deforestation and development are shrinking elephant habitat, and human settlements are inching closer and closer to the animals’ historical turf. And hey, an elephant’s gotta eat! A single one can gobble more than 300 pounds of plant matter a day. Is it the elephant’s fault that farms put all those calories in one place?
Fortunately, conservation organizations are working to create new ways to help pachyderms and people live in relative harmony. Here are but a few.
We use electric fences to corral cattle and keep bears out of the corncrib, so why not construct some high-voltage barriers to keep elephants at bay?
“Electric fencing is a very effective system of keeping elephants out,” says Jayasinghe, “but it needs to be maintained.” When fencing fails, it’s usually because the wiring has come undone or the electricity has gone out—sometimes by chance, sometimes by negligence, and sometimes…by elephant sabotage. Stories abound of people seeing elephants swing tree trunks down onto the fences, thereby breaking the circuit.
Jayasinghe tells me elephants are quite intelligent and capable of working through problems.
“Like velociraptors?” I ask, hopelessly relating all animal intelligence to a fictional movie’s inaccurate portrayal of a cunning, carnivorous dinosaur. But Jayasinghe gets me. “Absolutely!” she laughs. Elephants: the velociraptors of the peanut farm.
Trenches or moats are another way to keep elephants away, or at least slow them down. Farmers can also dig them along their electric fences to prevent the elephants from pulling any of the shenanigans mentioned above.
But elephants aren’t known to back away from a challenge.
Jayasinghe says she’s received reports that some elephants traverse trenches with a little help from their friends. Once the herd is down in the pit, a single elephant will push the others up, one by one. The last one on top will then turn around and help haul the stepladder elephant out. Ta-da!
An elephant trench, however, runs the risk of becoming a trap. The animals have been known to fall into the pits and become injured, sometimes dying in the process. And not every farmer has access to a backhoe to get them out.
I know what you’re thinking—bees?! Yes, bees.
Elephants can have skin up to an inch thick, but that doesn’t mean a bee’s sting doesn’t still, well, sting. The Elephant and Bees Project recommends that farmers set up a series of suspended hives around the land they want to protect.
A “bee fence” is actually pretty simple. When elephants come marauding, they either bump into the nests or trip wires that are connected to them. The disturbed nests gets the bees all antsy in the pantsy, and anything nearby better get scarce if it knows what’s good for it.
The E&B Project claims an 85 percent success rate, which is pretty great considering it only costs between $100 and $500 to string bee hives along an area roughly the length of a football field. The farms also benefit from having all those pollinators nearby. And the elephants get off easy—a few itchy welts are nothing compared to an angry mob with shotguns.
Pollinators sound great, but researchers have found that a farmer wouldn’t even need real bees. Simply playing audio of buzzing bees apparently does the trick.
A team out of North Carolina State University is taking this strategy even further. Students from the textiles and engineering schools teamed up to create an elephant collar that both buzzes like a hive of angry bees and vibrates to mimic the feeling of being attacked by ants—the elephant’s other tiny nemeses. GPS sensors activate the collar whenever the elephant passes into no-no territory.
Wait, is it really feasible to collar every elephant around? No it’s not, but the thinking goes that only the matriarch—the boss—would need a collar. When she says “Retreat!” that’s an order.
Over spring break last year, Jesse Jur, a materials scientist at NC State, took some of his students to South Africa to test their prototype. Using a group of elephants that had been rehabilitated after injuries from previous human-related conflict, Jur and his team baited a field with apples. They then collared a bull and led him toward the tasty treats.
“Elephants have a really great sense of smell,” says Jur, “so when the collar first buzzed, the elephant stopped for a moment and kind of just walked around the perimeter. But then it seemed to decide, ‘Well, these are apples and I want to go get them.’ ”
That’s when Jur and his team hit him with the vibration. Delicious apples or not, the elephant then turned and walked away. What’s more, Jur says the trainers he was working with reported that the bull elephant wouldn’t go near the apple orchard for about two months after they took his collar off.
“So the elephant knew very quickly it was in a place it shouldn’t be,” says Jur.
The biggest drawback to these collars might be the cost, but Jur and his students are developing ways to make the collaring system more efficient. Solar panels, for instance, could reduce battery weight and give the collar an impressive 6- to 10-year lifespan.
Fighting Elephants with Elephants
It may sound crazy, but sometimes farmers resort to fighting elephants with more elephants.
In a few instances, the WWF has trained elephants to stand up to their own kind. As soon as they get word a raid is coming, the Flying Elephant Squad, a team of four captive elephants and eight human handlers, rush to the scene and chase the wild elephants back into the night.
When the herd comes a knockin’, the Flying Elephant Squad comes a rockin’! Are these elephants turncoats? Maybe. Double Agents? I wouldn’t bet against it.
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All these programs have one thing in common: They train people how to protect their lives and livelihoods but teach that elephants are important parts of the ecosystem—not to mention big draws for tourism, which brings more money into the farmers’ community.
“If you don’t have buy-in from the local communities to want to conserve wildlife, it’s going to be a really tough battle,” says Jayasinghe.
One village’s elephant repellent might not work as well for the next village, but conservationists are dedicated to finding solutions that save lives and crops and biodiversity. These seven-ton animals are proving to be formidable opponents, but you have to respect a species that keeps us on our toes.
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