Elephant and bee researcher nets green prize

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News

image captionElephants often end up as victims in conflicts - this one, by poisoning

A British scientist has won a coveted environment research prize for showing how bees can be used to reduce conflict between people and elephants.

Lucy King's work proved that beehive "fences" can keep elephants out of African farmers' fields or compounds.

The animals are scared of bees, which can sting them inside their trunks, and flee when they hear buzzing.

Dr King received the Unep/CMS Thesis Prize at the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) meeting in Norway.

image captionAfter five years working in the bush, Lucy King found the award "wonderful recognition"

"Her research underlines how working with, rather than against, nature can provide humanity with many of the solutions to the challenges countries and communities face," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep).

"Dr King's work spotlights an intelligent solution to an age-old challenge, while providing further confirmation of the importance of bees to people and a really clever way of conserving the world's largest land animal for current and future generations."

The African-born scientist, whose research was supervised at Oxford University, said she was delighted and surprised to receive the prize, which is given every three years to a particularly outstanding PhD thesis in the conservation field.

"I just couldn't believe it when I heard - it was such a boost, and a wonderful thing to be recognised at that level," she told BBC News.

"Especially after spending five years out in the bush bouncing around in a landrover - it was wonderful."

Buzzing off

Part of Dr King's prize was giving a lecture at the CMS meeting in Bergen, telling the assembled scientists and government delegates about the project.

Working in Kenya, she and her team showed that more than 90% of elephants will flee when they hear the sounds of buzzing bees.

Subsequently, they also found that elephants produce a special rumble to warn their fellows of the danger.

They used the findings to construct barriers where beehives are woven into a fence, keeping the elephants away from places where people live and grow food.

A two-year pilot project involving 34 farms showed that elephants trying to go through the fences would shake them, disturbing the bees.

Later, the fences were adopted by farming communities in three Kenyan districts - who also made increased amounts of money from selling honey.

"Dr Lucy King has designed a constructive solution that considers the needs of migratory animals but also the economic benefits to the local communities linked to species conservation," said CMS executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema.

image captionThe elephants run away from bees - and from the lands that people have settled

As Africa's population grows, competition for space between people and elephants is becoming more serious, and there are fatalities on both sides.

The same is true in parts of Asia.

Sri Lanka alone sees the deaths of an estimated 60 people and 200 elephants each year from conflict.

Working with the charity Save the Elephants, Lucy King now wants to see whether the Kenyan technique will work in other parts of Africa - and perhaps, eventually, in Asia.

"I can't say for certain it's going to work elsewhere, but there is potential to take it down to southern Africa which has the largest elephant population and an increasing human-elephant conflict problem," she said.

"With Asia, there are some issues we'd have to look at - it's a totally different elephant species, the bee species are different, it rains a lot more, we have animals like bears that love honey - but I'd be very interested in sharing my research with anyone with experience in Asia to see whether it could work there."

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