Saving Elephants With Oranges, Bees and Tiger Urine

Human-elephant conflict claims the lives of both species at alarmingly high numbers. Here are some innovations that are helping to reduce tensions.

September 10, 2018

9:35 pm

For Western tourists on safari in Africa or Asia, elephants are a must-see iconic species. Elephants have an altogether different relationship with their human neighbors, however, particularly as those humans encroach further and further into traditional elephant habitats.

Human-elephant conflict (HEC) is the negative interplay between the two species when they encounter each other near human settlements. And though it might sound silly to those Westerners not familiar with the subject, it is a deadly serious matter for the people living in close proximity to elephants.

"In some ways, human-elephant conflict comes down to conflict between people," observes Paul Harrison, former head of UNDP's Global Wildlife Program and now CEO of UK-based natural-resources consulting firm Kilimanyika. "It might be conflict between a politician and a group of farmers, or between a villager and a ranger. The elephant represents the great beauty of a national park and tourism in the park. But as soon as it sets foot out of the park, it's not representing the park anymore — it's representing a threat to those people, to those farmers, to their livelihoods. Those people are at conflict with the other people running the parks. One group wants the elephant to live, the others might want the elephant to die."

In response to HEC — or human-human conflict, as Harrison observes — and to mitigate that conflict, a number of innovative and fascinating solutions are being developed around the globe. Those include barriers between human settlements and the areas where elephants inhabit — barriers that fall into two categories: active (ones that utilize sound and light to scare elephants away, including a bio-acoustic device that emanates predator calls of tigers and leopards) and passive (ones that are constructed to keep elephants out).

While the passive-barrier category includes walls, fences and moats, it also includes many new exciting innovations, including "fences" made of chili peppers, tobacco, dung (elephants do not like to congregate near their own excrement), agave, and (for Asian elephants) tiger urine.

What follows are some more ideas being utilized around the world.

Sri Lankan oranges are known as dodam in Sinhalese. Elephants do not like them.


One seemingly easy way to keep elephants away from farmers' crops? Plant crops that elephants don't like.

This was the challenge for the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS, a Moving Giants "Elephant Champion"), faced with HEC in the elephant-heavy areas surrounding Wasgamuwa National Park, in the very center of Sri Lanka.

It seems so simple, yet it took a while to formulate Project Orange Elephant in Sri Lanka. First SLWCS had to do a little detective work.

"Every time there was a raid by an elephant, we would go to that village and conduct a survey," says Ravi Corea, Founder, CEO and President of SLWCS, which launched and manages Project Orange Elephant. "We would look at the damage the elephant has caused. The stored food it had eaten, whether it had eaten crops in a garden. We'd assess these damages, record them. Also ask the farmers: What did the elephant eat? Anything the elephants did *not* eat? And even if they did not eat a particular tree or crop, did they knock it over? Unnecessary destruction — elephants do that. It makes sense to them."

Corea and his team at SLWCS started to build a forensic profile for elephants' habits in Central Sri Lanka. They noticed that, while elephants would repeatedly consume rice, coconuts and bananas, there was one crop they would not even touch.

"They never ate and never unnecessarily destroyed an orange tree," observes Corea. (Note: In Sri Lanka's Sinhalese language, the word for "orange, "dodam," refers to the inner fruit, a sour, citrus with a green rind and not the sweeter, oranges with orange rind more familiar to US and European consumers.) "You can imagine if you're doing these surveys through 50 to 75 homes through a season, you are seeing little flags here. They basically eat or destroy other fruit trees or crops, but they never damage an orange tree. So maybe oranges could become a solution."

These seemed like good clues, but more testing had to be done before a solution was proffered. "We had to be 100% sure," recalls Corea, "because we didn't want farmers committing to grow a crop that would *attract* elephants."

So the SLWCS team reached out to the Colombo Zoo to see if they could try an experiment: feeding trials. They constructed a shelter in the elephant habitat of the zoo and in that shelter offered elephants nine items: some that they knew elephants would love (pumpkins, carrots, bananas) and some that the SLWCS team suspected they would not (oranges, branches of orange trees).

"We weren't sure what they would like," says Corea. "But we gave them a selection of items and wondered if they would preferentially choose certain foods. We kept them hungry, all six elephants, and observed their eating for 15 minutes. We recorded what they ate first, and what was second, third, fourth."

They conducted these feeding trials four times, with a two-week gap between each, to ensure there were no testing biases. And each of the four times they staged the experiment, the elephants "were repulsed" by the oranges.

That led to a plot program in 2006 in Wasgamuwa, to try this model, in a real situation. "It was a bit challenging in the beginning," admits Corea, "mainly because the farmers were used to growing seasonal crops, like rice and corn. They cultivate for a certain season. And that's it. He harvests and stores his grain and then waits till the next season. But oranges are a perennial crop, and you have to constantly take care of the trees, water them, look for pest infestations. You have to be a horticulturalist. These farmers had no experience with that. We had to start from scratch, training them, retraining them, encouraging them and re-encouraging them."

The program was an almost instant hit. "When the farmers realized that the elephants would not usually come — and even if they did come, they didn't linger anymore —" that's when Corea knew they had a success.

"Then we started using these farmers as agents for change," notes Corea. "We brought the farmers to other villages to talk about the effectiveness of it. It had a very positive chain reaction."

Now SLWCS has planted close to 7,000 orange trees in 12 villages, all surrounding Wasgamuwa. "Now we are trying to cope with demand," says Corea. "There are so many other villages demanding we help them that Project Orange Elephant, that now we have to deal with all these farmers cultivating oranges. We need to find a market for that. Sri Lanka's largest supermarket [Food City, a subsidiary of Cargills Ceylon Ltd.] signed a deal with us to supply them with these oranges and they would sell them. That has also became a challenge, because we have to produce at a commercial volume. We have to keep increasing our production."

Whether or not this program works beyond Central Sri Lanka is an open question. "Human-elephant conflict can be very specific to a region — or to a village," notes Corea. "Your approach has to be specific to that region. The solution has to be specific to the conflict. There is not a one solution fits all."

"One group wants the elephant to live, the others might want the elephant to die."

Paul Harrison


Kenya's agricultural Laikipia District straddles the equator in the center of the country. Like all counties in this East African country, it offers special protections for elephants.

For local communities living in close proximity to elephants — whose homes, crops, and livelihoods are often damaged (sometimes destroyed) by elephants — that protection puts them at a disadvantage, observes Dr. Tobias Ochieng Nyumba, Ph.D., of the African Conservation Centre (another Moving Giants "Elephant Champion").

"The thinking of local farmers," says Nyumba, whose expertise is mitigating HEC, "is that, 'If I have my own cattle, I can milk it, I can get meat from it, and it is my responsibility. But here the government is not taking responsibility for *its* cow."

That is how locals in Laikipia refer to elephants: "the government's cow" (Ngombe ya serikali in Swahili).

"The people felt powerless," says Nyumba. "This big creature was destroying their property and they had no recourse to stop it."

It is not, of course, the elephants' fault for coming into contact with particular villages or settlements. As humans encroach further and further into elephants' traditional habitats, the animals have little choice but to "trespass" on human territory. But the reality of HEC — be it in Kenya, other parts of Africa, or in Asia — is that these dangerous encounters are not beneficial to either species.

"The organizations I've worked with tend to prioritize the protection of elephants," says Nyumba. "The elephant population then rises, which leads to increased human-elephant conflict. And the more the elephants come closer to villages, the more intense the conflict gets. It leads to fatalities, for both sides."

As in many human-to-human conflicts, taking a simple step back would reveal that both sides have common interests, and the same is true with humans and elephants.

"Elephants, which are huge and charismatic animals, require a lot of space looking for food and water," says Nyumba. "But basically, they need food and water — the same resources they need for their survival are the very resources needed for humans. The locals — the small-scale farmers — need water from the rivers for irrigation, and that ends up attracting elephants to their farms. The farmers have very large and nutritious crops that elephants cannot access in the forests. So when they appear on the farms, they often end up either killing the people or the people kill the elephants in anger."

Nyumba stresses that it is vital for there to be more understanding of elephants from the human side. Increasing community awareness not only about how important elephants are for tourism and for the ecosystem, but also teaching locals about elephant behavior. Some human deaths have been the result of locals not understanding how elephants behave -- especially at night.

One innovative mitigator that was effective for a few years was the use of "banger sticks," locally made noisemakers that one would throw at the ground, whereupon they would make a terrific explosive sound. Between 2004 and 2007, "nearly all of the farmers surveyed felt that the banger sticks were working very well," recalls Nyumba.

Sadly, notes Nyumba, some of the young people in the communities noticed how much the noise that the banger sticks evoked sounded like gunfire, and they started using banger sticks illegally, pretending they were guns and throwing them on the ground at night to scare — and steal from their fellow Likapia community members.

"Human-elephant conflict mitigation is a science as well as an art," says Nyumba. "Science in the sense that you must utilize data and study the psychology, the people, their environment, and how these creatures fit into the bigger picture. And art in the sense that you must figure out, creatively, how to apply them. Human-elephant conflict mitigation is a huge challenge that needs people to think scientifically and artistically.

Banger sticks, used in Kenya, can scare off elephants with a loud noise.


The human-elephant conflict problem in Sri Lanka is similar to most human-elephant conflicts globally. But the HEC clashes that present themselves in India are rather unique.

The world's second-most populous country has metropolitan areas that are bulging at the seams, and one of those areas is Bangalore. Bangalore is the third-largest city in India, with a metro-area population of more than 12 million. That's more than the combined populations of Norway, Ireland and Slovenia.

The municipal limits of the city now extend so far that they include a huge swath of Bannerghatta National Park — 40% of the northern part of the park, in fact.

"It's very small (260 square kilometers), but very interesting, with conservation implications," says Avinash Krishnan, senior research officer with A Rocha India (another Moving Giants "Elephant Champion") which focuses on reducing HEC in the Bannerghatta park. "Bannerghatta is the only protected area in the whole of the country — perhaps of the world — that is so close to a metropolitan city."

"What is also interesting is that you have elephants and tigers living in such close proximity to a major metropolitan area," says Krishnan. "Elephants cause lots of damage — it is a highly volatile situation, which also causes a lot of strained relationships between people, particularly between forest managers and the local people. The local people are upset by crop loss, but also because of the loss of lives — those killed by elephants."

And it isn't as if people and elephants can try to stay out of each others' way. There are 150 villages within a kilometer of the protected area boundary, on both its eastern and western sides.

Krishnan believes that there cannot be just one solution to reducing HEC — that there needs to be multiple approaches, including passive-barrier and active-barrier mechanisms. A Rocha India has helped implement at least nine different types of structural barriers in Bannerghatta alone: electric fence, elephant trench, rubble wall, mesh, concrete wall, concrete moat, spike pillar, spike gate, and the newest, installed in 2015, rail-track fence.

The reason for the variety? "Since elephants are such cognitive creatures," says Krishnan, "they tend to breach those barriers or break them or manipulate them. So in Bannerghatta, we have nine types of structural barriers."

A Rocha India and Bannerghatta are also wrapping up a pilot project with a hybrid passive/active barrier: a bee fence. Elephants are absolutely terrified of bees — their trunks are extremely sensitive and contain more than 150,000 muscles, so the idea of a bee getting up one's trunk and stinging is not one any elephant wants to risk — and thus the idea is to post beehives at incremental distances and form a barrier of sorts. The added bonus is that the local farmers who install bee fences also get a new product to harvest and bring to market: honey.

The dire consequences of not mitigating HEC in India are clear. "In India alone we lose about 500 people and 200 elephants every year," says Krishnan. "It will reach severe levels if we do not manage it effectively. It is an exacerbating concern."

Another innovative human-elephant barrier is chili smoke. Elephants have sensitive olfactory systems, and they do not like the smoke from chilis.