New Buzz on Elephant Repellent

David vs Goliath

12-01-2008 // Roger Di Silvestro

They might be giants, but African elephants are now running in fear from one of the continent’s smaller animals--honey bees, enlisted in the fight against crop-raiding pachyderms.

As agriculture has extended into more and more of Africa’s arable land, the elephant, despite the population decline it has suffered in recent years from poaching, has increasingly come into conflict with farmers. Elephants eat plants, crops are plants--you can see where this syllogism is going.

Farmers have tried many and varied ways to repel marauding tuskers, putting up fences, using bright lights, burning rubber-soled shoes (on the assumption that the stench would ward off the long-nosed and smell-sensitive animals). Nothing worked effectively.

Recently, however, Lucy King of the University of Oxford, as reported in Current Biology, played a 4-minute recording of the buzz of swarming bees to 17 different elephant herds in Buffalo Springs and Samburu National Reserves in Kenya. Sixteen of the herds bolted from the sound, which emanated from speakers secreted in an artificial tree trunk. You would not have to be inappropriately anthropomorphic to guess why elephants would hasten away from what sounds like a swarm of stinging bees.

The equipment used to play the recordings would probably be prohibitively expensive for farmers, but King suggests that agriculturalists set up real beehives near crops to scare off elephants, then turn a tidy profit from selling the honey. At last, a wildlife repellent that is not only nonlethal but pays for itself.

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