Creating a buzz to tackle an elephantine problem

The Khadi and Village Industries Ltd’s RE-HAB project, launched last year in Karnataka, addresses human-elephant conflict through bee-fencing. It is also raising income of the local farmers.

Arvind Shukla
| Updated: March 20th, 2021

Farmers are being trained in bee-keeping that will keep their crops safe from elephant incursions and prevent the conflict. Photo: By arrangement

It’s been a year now that the diminutive bee is keeping elephants at bay and protecting the crops of farmers in Karnataka. As part of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission’s RE-HAB (Reducing elephant-human attack by using bees) pilot project launched last year on March 15, honey bees are being used at the outskirts of Nagarhole National Park as well as the Tiger Reserve in Kodagu district of the state to keep elephants off the fields. 

The project is setting up bee-fencing, in the periphery of agricultural lands and villages. The bee-hives act as deterrents to the elephants from entering the fields and damaging crops. The project has been initiated under the khadi commission’s national honey mission at a cost of Rs 15 lakh.    

“It is scientifically established that elephants are wary of bees,” said Vinay Kumar Saxena, chairperson of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) under the Union ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises. Elephants are especially afraid of bees entering their sensitive trunks and eyes. They are intelligent creatures and they avoid returning to places where they have encountered honey bees, he pointed out.

KVIC has put up 15-20 boxes of bees where elephants usually enter Chelur village in Kodagu district. The boxes are connected to a wire so that in the event of an elephant passing through, the bees in the boxes are activated and the buzzing swarms arrest the elephants’ progress into the fields. Night vision cameras have also been installed to observe the impact of bees on elephants, how the elephants react in such a situation and develop further strategic course of action.

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 This RE-HAB project aims to address the growing human-elephant conflict in the country with casualties on both the sides. As forests get cut and fragmented, elephants, in search of food, often raid farmlands and destroy the standing crops.

Between 2015 and 2020, nearly 2,500 people lost their lives in elephant attacks out of which 170 human deaths took place in Karnataka alone. In the same time period, about 500 elephants also died due to retributory action by human beings. 

Source: PIB. Photo: By arrangement

Apart from reducing human-wildlife conflict, this project also aims to increase the income of local farmers through bee-keeping and sale of honey and wax. These farmers are being trained in bee-keeping that will keep their crops safe from elephant incursions and prevent the conflict. They have been taught to put the bee boxes where the elephants usually move. It also keeps the elephants safe from harm.  

According to a statement by the Union ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises, the Central Bee Research and Training Institute in Pune, a unit of KVIC, had tested “bee-fencing” to curb elephant attacks in Maharashtra. KVIC has also taken the help of the College of Forestry, Ponnampet, Karnataka, to assess the impact of the project. 

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Keeping elephants at bay

The Wildlife Research and Conservation Society has been working in the Kali Tiger Reserve area of Karnataka since 2010 to deal with elephants with the help of bees and other simple traditional methods like using chilly smoke or tobacco smoke to repel the elephants.  

“The method of dissuading elephants through bees is very easy and inexpensive. It does not harm anyone,” Prachi Mehta, executive director (research), WRCS, told Gaon Connection.  According to her, this experiment was first carried out by Lucy King, a scientist in Africa. “I met her at a conference in China in 2009, and she had advised me to take it up in India,” Mehta said. “The elephants leave the field within three to four minutes of encountering the bee fences,” she observed .

The WRCS had initially tried using a recording of bees buzzing to scare away the elephants. “But elephants being very intelligent animals figured out that there was no real threat behind the sound,” said Mehta. Thereafter, bee-fencing was introduced and that yielded a good response, she added, and many farmers approached them to learn more about it. 

WRCS is working independently with 500 farmers from 17 villages in the Anshi Dandeli Tiger Reserve area in Karnataka. They train the farmers on methods to protect their crops from elephants.  

RE-HAB hopes to reduce the conflict through its bee-fencing project. Photo: PIB

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The bee-fencing method, used in Africa is an expensive affair as it uses wooden boxes. The villagers in Karnataka brought fallen trees from the jungle to the fields and the bees made their hives as they would, in a natural process.  

Farmers are being trained to use logs in place of wooden boxes in order to protect their crops from elephants. Photo: WRCS

“This hardly costs anything. In addition, the forest department provides about forty thousand rupees to the affected villages, and the amount is used to introduce methods to reduce elephant-animal encounters,” explained Mehta. This way the crops of the farmers, their habitation and the well being of the elephants were maintained without any casualties, she pointed out. 

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Source: PIB. Photo: By arrangement

Rising conflict in India

Elephant-human conflicts are frequent in India and they cause great damage to human habitations and crop losses in West Bengal, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. According to the elephant census carried out once in five years, the estimated number of elephants in India was 29,964 in 2017. RE-HAB hopes to reduce the conflict through its bee-fencing project.

“Human-elephant conflict has reduced and the farmers are able to earn extra from the honey and wax from the bees,” Ravi Yellapur, field officer of WRCS, who is working in the Kali Tiger Reserve Park, told Gaon Connection. According to him, since 2015 his organisation is working on human-elephant conflict in the Kali area. “Earlier, during one crop season, elephants used to raid farm fields five to six times. In 2016, there were cases of crop depredation. But since then, no such cases have been reported,” he informed.    

Pollination has also improved due to the presence of honeybees around the fields, and, according to Yellapur, even the yield of the crops has gone up. Where the yield of a farmer was 10 quintals per hectare, it has gone up to 12 quintals a hectare, he said. Farmers are earning profits by selling honey and beeswax. For instance, a local farmer, Yallapa Nayak, has 20 boxes of bees that give him about 30 kilogrammes (kg) of honey a year and five kg of wax. The honey sells for Rs 300 a kg.

“This initiative is also very important from the perspective of the diminishing population of honeybees around the world,” Yellapur pointed out. 

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Read the story in Hindi here.