Bees, the pet hate of elephants

For millions of African peasants, it is vitally important to prevent elephants from coming anywhere near their crops. Over the past few years, a whole range of non-lethal means have been invented to keep savanna elephants at bay. The results are encouraging but… this animal isn't stupid. It is necessary to continuously find new dissuasive methods, while respecting the imperatives of protecting this highly endangered species. For the first time, a team from Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech has demonstrated, in Gabon, that the effectiveness of beehives and bees as a deterrent also applies to Central Africa's forest elephants.   

Gabon is mostly known in Europe for its oil bonanza and its high development index compared with neighbouring countries. However, despite this reputation, there is another far less well-known reality that has nevertheless caused a fair amount of ink to flow in the world of nature conservation. This country is the subject of an enormous paradox, relating to one of the most prestigious emblems of its vast natural heritage and biodiversity: the elephant. Although it is an endangered species, it is causing an increasing amount of damage to crops.

Forest elephant group

Eight times bigger than Belgium with a population of scarcely 1.5 million inhabitants (i.e. seven times less than the average density in Africa!), Gabon is strewn with vast forests, many of which are officially protected (parks, reserves, etc.). The majority of its population is packed into two major urban areas (Libreville and Port-Gentil) and along the main communication routes. At first sight, we could be led to believe that, generally speaking, humans and the famous pachyderm live together in harmony. Yet, in reality, it is quite a different matter. "Throughout the country, people are becoming increasingly annoyed because of crop damage caused by elephants", explains Cédric Vermeulen, professor at Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech/University of Liège. "To the point where a growing number of despondent villagers, in forests, are abandoning their fields, and this phenomenon, reported by the local elite, is increasingly turning into something of a national debate. The paradox is all the more surprising because even though the country is still home to the biggest population of forest elephants (Loxodonta Africana cyclotis), the species is in dramatic decline. The most recent figures from scientific counts are worrying: between 2002 and 2011 alone, the forest elephant's numbers fell by 62 % in Central Africa". 

Growing exasperation

The specialist in Africa and human-wildlife interactions highlights two elements as possible explanations for this paradox. On the one hand, each party's need for mobility: elephants are capable of covering great distances, bringing them in contact with human activities that require an increasing amount of space and communication routes owing to demographic pressure. On the other hand (and there is a connection here), some of the animals living in natural areas, normally associated with peaceful conditions, are actually subject to the intense pressure of poaching. Driven by the urgent need for security and food, they are tempted to "go and see elsewhere" and, by doing so, come ever closer to crops. Often located on the borders of wildlife reserves, fields rich in a wide variety of fruit and tubers (plantains, yams, manioc, etc.) allow them to satisfy their enormous food requirements more easily than by foraging in the forest. In this sort of cost/benefit balance between and hunger and the need for security, it is – in most cases – the first imperative that prevails, despite the sporadic slaughtering of these animals by exasperated villagers.

Of course, we can't completely exclude the fact that strictly political stakes may be involved in the increased focus on this theme in the country's media and political agenda. However, the social and economic reality can't be ignored: a large chunk of the rural population, which is already deprived of various facilities (hospitals, schools, drinking water, etc.) is constantly exposed to the incursions of animals capable of compromising a need as basic as access to food. "The world of conservation is undermined by this reality", Cédric Vermeulen emphasises. "Villagers are deprived of their crops and populations are suffering. We urgently need to find effective and non-lethal solutions to deter the elephants. The country's president, Ali Bongo, apparently publicly stated that he hadn't been elected by elephants..." If we read between the lines, this message could spell dark times ahead for the Loxodonta Africana Cyclotis populations. Because it is very tempting for the political elite to propose to flush them out or apply other retaliatory measures. Effective in the short term, these aren't known to solve anything in the long term. Furthermore, they risk hastening the forest elephant populations into the impasse in which they are heading.

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