Bees keep hungry jumbos at bay
Fencing scheme with a sting helps protect farmers' crops, writes Apinya Wipatayotin in Loei
Beehives are helping to protect farms in Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary in Loei's Phu Rua district by keeping wild elephants away from rice crops, bringing relief to locals who have attempted to fend off elephant incursions for years with little success.
The project is being implemented by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, which reports a 74% success rate, better than that for the alternatives such as electric fences.
Jirachai Arkajag, chief of Phu Luang Wildlife Research Station, said he came across the beehive-fence idea on the internet last year.
He said Kenya has put up beehive fences around farms to prevent intrusions by wild elephants for several years. The fences worked there, so he decided to try out the idea here.
"The key message of the beehive fence project is it can prevent crop losses and help farmers save money. We can't ask them to help protect the elephants if their stomachs are empty," he said.
Referring to one seven-rai demonstration site, he said 25 bee boxes are hung with ropes between fence poles which surround a protected area.
Each box contains around 20,000 bees and the boxes automatically open if elephants try to break the rope to get to the crops.
The beehive fence delights the paddy field owner, Pimpa Kammanit, 70, who has spent over a decade trying to protect his rice farms from wild elephants, with little success.
Previous measures such as setting off fire crackers and putting up an electric fence had failed to prevent the elephants from destroying his crops.
Mr Pimpa said his yields once fell to as little as 10% as the elephants ate the rest.
However, after the department invited him to join the beehive fence project, erected over a demonstration site, his fortunes started to improve.
Mr Pimpa said elephants have stayed away since the beehive boxes were erected at his farm in July.
As a bonus, he is selling honey produced by the bees as a sideline venture.
According to a Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary study, confrontations between villagers and the wild elephants go back to 1998, as habitats for the elephants started to decline.
The study found 50 elephants were living in the area in 1998.
That has grown to 97 elephants today, spread over the sanctuary's 987-square kilometre area, which is also home to up to 58 villages.
Between January to September, elephants were reported to have made 46 incursions to farmland to eat paddy fields, cassava and maize crops.
The department has introduced beehive fencing to six areas in the district, and reports a 74% success rate in stopping elephants' intrusions.
Although the cost of the investment is high at 3,500 baht a box, a spin-off benefit is 50 bee boxes can produce 300 kilogrammes of honey which sells for 150-500 baht per kilogramme.
The farmers can collect the honey every three weeks, said Mr Jirachai.
Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn paid a visit to the Phu Rua National Park in February to learn about the project.
Meanwhile, Chainarong Doodderm, chief of Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary, said livestock kept by local farmers is pushing elephants out of the forest.
He said over 3,000 cows and buffaloes compete with elephants for food and water.
Forest officials have been working with farmers to limit livestock in the forest zone.
While they want to keep elephants away from farmers' crops, they are also trying to preserve their habitats in the sanctuary.
Adisorn Nuchdamrong, the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation department's deputy chief, said staff want to reduce conflicts between locals and elephants, especially in the forests spanning five provinces in the eastern part of Thailand that are home to 300 wild elephants.
The department plans to introduce the beehive fence project to the forest complex to prevent elephant intrusions and increase incomes for locals selling honey.