Elephants, buzz off!

07 August 2018

Interview with

Agenor Mafra-Neto, ISCA Technologies

While we may get exasperated by the plagues of wasps that inevitably arrive alongside summer, here in the UK most of our wildlife is relatively easy to control. But if you’re a farmer in some parts of Africa you might have a much bigger problem to contend with - elephants. But how can farmers fend them off without harming them? The answer is to prey on their fears… Georgia Mills spoke with Agenor Mafra-Neto, CEO of ISCA Technologies.

Agenor - One of the biggest problems that Africa has with the population of elephants is that they basically bulldoze. They are animals that reshape the environment… What is going on right now is that the elephants don’t necessarily respect fences and they invade those areas and they cause problems and elephants raid crops. When a herd of elephants get into a farm it can be the destruction of that family’s or that village’s whole year crop.

Georgia - And this destruction of crops leads to increasing tensions between people and the elephants which can escalate…

Agenor - Sometimes the elephants get killed.

Georgia - With elephants already in danger from poaching and habitat loss reducing this conflict is important for everyone involved. So how do you get an elephant to respect a fence?

Agenor - One of the ways that people started playing with was looking at what elephants are afraid of.

Georgia - And it turns out there is something that even the mighty elephant is afraid of… bees.

Agenor - They are aggressive protecting their beehives and they sting the elephants in very very sensitive areas, especially the trunk and around the eyes and into the ears.  So the elephants hate that and it seems like it works, like they are really afraid of bees. They are not afraid of elephants or rhinoceros or anything like that but they are afraid of bees.

So what people in Africa started doing, especially the growers, they started putting beehives on the fences and they found out that the elephants were respecting those fences now.

Georgia - Right. It doesn’t sound exactly practical to line your fence with bees then, so what have you done that’s different?

Agenor - One of the things that a bee does when she stings you is that she leaves an alarm pheromone that this chemical induces the other bees to come and sting you. The elephants they smell that so this study that we did showed that the elephants no only can smell the alarm pheromone but the respect the area that has this alarm pheromone.

Georgia - How do you isolate this pheromone? Are you sort of squishing alarmed bees down together? How are you isolating it?

Agenor - The alarm pheromone of bees is something that people have studied before, and they published the composition of this pheromone years ago. The problem here is that the alarm pheromone has dozens of components and it was important that we used components that were inexpensive and make them readily available. So we needed to come up with a simplified blend so we decided to go with a couple of components that were simpler, easier to make and we thought that could convey that chemical message to the elephant.

Georgia - The team tested out this “elephant bee gone” in the field spraying the formula onto socks on fences. And 25 out of the 29 elephants that approached the pheromone socks turned and left.

Agenor - When we started having success with the response of the elephants it was really really great because it allows us now to have a formulation that is extremely inexpensive that is affordable for these growers and parks, and anyone that is trying to contain the elephants, so they can create this chemical fence.

Georgia - Do we have any idea what affect this is going to have on the rest of the ecosystem? Is it going to confuse the bees maybe?

Agenor - I’m not sure if it’s going to confuse the bees necessarily because they usually respond to the alarm pheromone when they are close to the beehives. So maybe if these alarm pheromones are close to beehives we are going to have an affect, but otherwise I don’t see a problem. In relationship to other animals, I’m not sure. I don’t think so and that’s something that in some places is important to determine if there are any other species that is being affected by something like this.

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