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Keeping Wildlife Alive


By Maneka Gandhi

Last week a barasingha strayed into a field in Panchkula. She ate a ball of wheat, only to find it was a homemade bomb and her jaw and throat were blasted off. Passersby saw her sitting calmly on the side of the road, bleeding. They sent for the forest department. Those worthies arrived in 4 hours and then took her to a local doctor who gave her a paracetamol injection and then sent her off to the Morni wildlife centre. She was dead on arrival. This kind of incident makes me sick with anger. The useless forest department is full of untrained flatfoots, and the useless animal husbandry department has no trained or even kind vets.

And the dreadful farmer, who killed a harmless beautiful deer on the severely endangered species list? He has still not been arrested, and the doctor and his aspirin, the wildlife department inspector who took 4 hours to come from a mile away, are not suspended.

Dozens of elephants are getting wiped out by farmers every year in the same way. Kerala is now a well known story and four more have died since I lost my temper publicly with the first death. Five have died in Chhattisgarh from poisoning, and in Odisha the farmers simply beat or shoot the elephants, or get the forest people to do it for them.

The excuse is always the same: that the animal endangered their crops. That the farmers are sitting on forest land, in the elephant corridors, is ignored by all. After all, elephants don’t have votes.

But it is not that difficult to keep elephants away.
Here are some solutions from Africa, where the same thing is happening not just with elephants but with giraffes, who now are being wiped out by farmers because they enter the fields on their way to water bodies. Less than 20% of their habitat is now under formal protection.

Elephants can no longer sustain themselves with the meagre amounts of food they find in forest areas and parks. They come into the fields that abut these reserves, and eat the harvest. So farmers kill them.

One deterrent that has been proposed is electric fencing, but that is extremely expensive and the electricity itself varies in voltage and can kill the elephant and every other animal. (In India many farmers are fencing with knotted barbed wires, and those steel knots tear the skin off hundreds of hungry cattle every month. I get so many cows and nilgai in my hospital in Bareilly, with their legs and chests cut to the bone.)

Now, the NGOs and government have come up with a much better idea and are pushing it across Africa. Indians would do well to adopt it.

Elephants are terrified of bees. Bees enter their trunks when they attack and sting the sensitive tissues inside; a pain that elephants never forget. So, generations of elephants have learnt to associate bees with pain and they even have a special “bees alert” call which causes them all to flee even when they hear the sound of buzzing.

One could try frightening them with the sound, but elephants catch on to empty threats very quickly. But, as scientists have shown, if the farmer actually hangs beehives from wooden posts at 10 feet intervals with a long metal wire linking them together, this becomes a protective fence. When the elephant hits the wire, the hives shake and the angry bees come out to defend their homes.

Beehive fences were invented in 2002, when scientists from the NGO Save the Elephants discovered that elephants avoided trees with beehives. Oxford University zoologist, Lucy King, designed the fence and it was tried out in 2008 in Kenya. Scientific studies, around the theme by her, have resulted in a project called Elephant and Bees, and this is supported by Save the Elephants, Oxford University and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, that helps farmers build beehive fencing near fields plagued by crop-raiding elephants. More than ten African countries have now taken this up. Silent Heroes Foundation is building beehive fences in Tanzania. Their success rate is 80% and they are cheap to build. And even more exciting – they make money. The raw honey is sold by the farmers with the label “Elephant Free Honey” and it goes to markets all over the world. “Beehive fences are the first elephant-deterrent fences that has been invented that actually makes the farmer more money than what it costs to maintain the fence,” King writes.

The bees also pollinate farmers’ crops and the nearby plants, providing an ecological and economic boost to the surrounding area. They require no electricity and don’t compete with crops for space. “Although the fence is only effective at keeping around 80% of the elephants out,” King writes, “it more than makes up for that 20% of elephants that do break through, by providing an alternative income, which can be managed by either men or women.”

Elephants perform essential services like digging waterholes in dry river beds, spreading hundreds of fruit tree species with their dung which also feeds dozens of insect and small animal species, and making forest trails that act as firebreaks. All this helps the ecology of the region, and the additional income of beehives gives farmers even more incentive to keep the elephants alive. Or, at least let them live by removing the conflict with the local community.

Elephants could bring in a lot of eco tourism money, if we understood the concept. Africa has calculated that each elephant brings in $ 23,000 per year in tourist money. If the Indian government could understand this, they would start investing in bee fences for farmers as one option to keeping them alive.

King’s organisation is training people and sending them to sites around the country and the continent to try the idea for themselves. They are also being trained on how to market the honey. There is even a free construction manual that shows you how to make different kinds of hives.

There are so many other simple solutions. There are low-tech deterrents like chilli pepper fences, which target elephants’ sensitive noses with capsaicin instead of bee venom.

An India without tigers and elephants is an India that has lost its soul. Both animals are nearing extinction, and it would be devastating if we let them die while we stood by. I have yet to find a single government scientist – including in the funeral parlour that calls itself the Wildlife Institute of India which only employs dead minds – who has applied his mind to keeping a single wild species alive.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)