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October 9, 2018

Safely managing elephants’ movements

When African elephants leave the safety of wildlife parks and wander onto farmland, the consequences can be serious. People have been trampled to death and their crops destroyed. When this happens, communities often call for elephant culling programs. Elephants that become problem animals in agricultural areas are regularly shot.

Developing sustainable, passive, non-destructive elephant movement tools is key to avoiding conflict.

Honeybee colonies deter elephants from raiding crops and breaking trees but using large numbers of hives to secure extensive stretches of fence, or on trees, is logistically impractical. With rainfall becoming increasingly erratic due to global climate change, sustaining a large number of bees in the arid or marginal areas often set aside for wildlife is challenging and expensive.  

An exciting study led by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa insect ecology specialist Mark Wright, found that alarm pheromones emitted by honeybees safely repelled elephants at South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park. 

The findings offer a new strategy for preventing the world’s largest land animals from destroying crops or causing other damage in areas where humans conflict with elephants, said Wright, lead author on the study published in the July issue of Current Biology.

Working with colleagues from the Balule Nature Reserve, University of South Africa, ISCA Technologies and Elephants Alive in South Africa, Wright tested a slow-release formulation that uses two of the two dozen compounds found in the pheromone released by African honeybees when they perceive a threat to their colony. The chemicals alert guard bees to mount a counterattack.

Scientists applied the pheromone formulation to white socks, which were weighted with rocks and hung from broken tree branches around watering holes frequented by African bush elephants. Most of the elephants that came near the formulation showed signs of increased alertness and uncertainty before moving calmly away. Elephants either ignored similar untreated socks or approached them, picked them up or even tried to taste them.

“Elephants have sensitive tissue around their eyes, ears and inside their trunks and hate to be stung,” said Wright, a faculty member in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources’ Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences. “With their acutely developed sense of smell, African elephants may have either evolved or learned behavioral responses to the scent of the bees’ alarm pheromones.”

Wright, who also explores pheromones as control agents for agricultural pests in Hawaiʻi, identified two of the honeybee pheromones that elicit stronger attack responses and contacted California-based biotechnology company ISCA Technologies. ISCA produced the synthetic pheromone mixture and dubbed it SPLAT™.

ISCA conducts research, develops and commercializes products that use pheromones and other naturally-occurring compounds that manipulate animal behavior to control insect pests without the need for area-wide spraying of toxic pesticides. This study breaks new ground by showing that synthetic pheromones have potential as tools to safely manage a large mammal species as well.

Support Safe Elephant Management

With private support, the team can conduct research to find the optimal chemical blend and determine whether elephants become desensitized to the scent in the absence of live bees. 

“We hope to expand this work to develop additional tools for sustainable passive management of elephant movements, to augment the current approaches used,” said Wright, who is from South Africa and has done previous work on insects and trees in the country’s extensive nature preserves.

Your gift will help the team:

  • Conduct more field trials of bee alarm pheromone blends to find the most effective elephant deterrent.
  • Share the findings amongst key stakeholders and help with community outreach so we can shape the strategies used to safely manage elephants and reduce human/elephant conflict. This includes educational programs in local schools so that elephants are once again respected as wildlife and not seen as pests.
  • UH Conservation biology students will gain valuable hands-on conservation and research experience. With funding they will play a key role in field data collection, data analysis and synthesis of results and reporting. 

Thank you for helping develop safe tools so that elephants and people can peacefully co-exist.

Questions? / More Information

If you would like to learn how you can support UH students and programs like this, please contact us at 808 376-7800 or send us a message.