Be(e) positive: Uttarakhand looks at tiny solution to tackle jumbo problem

Be(e) positive: Uttarakhand looks at tiny solution to tackle jumbo problem

Be(e) positive: Uttarakhand looks at tiny solution to tackle jumbo problem

Forest department runs a pilot project involving fencing of village limits using beehives to keep crops safe from wild elephants and to prevent human-animal conflict  

Nainital, Uttarakhand: Last month has been tough on Hema Jalal (29). With the wheat crop on four bighas ready for harvest and the threat of marauding wild elephants at its peak, she could barely sleep.  

“They come every second or third night, now that the crop has matured. Around eight elephants are present in this herd. The moment we hear them arriving, my husband and I beat vehemently on tin sheets or flash torchlights. They do run away, only to return soon,” says Jalal, who lives in Thapliya Ganja village in Bhimtal block of Nainital district.

Located about 20 km from Corbett Tiger Reserve, the village falls under Kaladhungi forest range and abuts an elephant corridor. Rivers Baur and Tilaud flow nearby, which makes the village a conducive spot for elephants.

According to Jalal, the herd that feasts on her crop settled near the village two-and-a-half years ago. Before that, only one or two elephants could be spotted. “They enter the field around 12.30 am, and will stick around till 4 am. Despite our best efforts, we have lost wheat in at least one bigha this time,” she says.  

Three years ago, when elephant sightings were rare, Jalal harvested around 18 quintals of wheat. Five and three quintals were kept aside for personal consumption and the next cycle of sowing, respectively. The remaining 10 quintals were sold for around Rs 20,000 annually. Since then, the losses have increased considerably — they lose at least 3-4 quintal and their income has nearly halved. 

(Above) The effectiveness of the beehive fence installed in Thapliya Ganja in February will be put to test in the coming cropping season (Photo - Dhan Singh Bisht, 101Reporters); (Below) A camera trap image from Fatehpur range, taken last December, shows a elephant stopping at beehive fence (Photo sourced from trainer Sanjay Joshi, 101Reporters)

Help comes buzzing

Taking note of the farmers’ plight, Uttarakhand forest department decided to run a pilot project to fence the village using a string of bee boxes. Kaladhungi range in Ramnagar forest division is extremely prone to human-elephant conflict. We started work on the beehive biofencing pilot last November,” Kundan Kumar, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Ramnagar division, tells 101Reporters.

This unique fence has so far covered a distance of one-and-a half km on the boundary of the reserve forest and revenue land. The boxes are installed in a pattern, with an alternating distance of 3m and 7m between them. Altogether, 60 boxes have been put in place.  

In order to assess the outcome, camera traps were installed. The bee boxes are linked to each other with wires for fencing. CCTV monitoring has established that jumbos are indeed scared of honey bees. They just back off the moment they hear the buzzing of bees,” says Kumar.

An elephant's body is mostly covered with thick skin, but there are soft and sensitive areas like trunk, ears and feet, where bees could sting.  

Though the bee boxes were set up in February, farmers could not take advantage of the pilot this rabi season. “Our village is surrounded by forest on all sides. Now, elephants are not entering from the side secured using the biofence. However, it covers only 40% of the village limits, so the jumbos come calling through the porous areas,” explains Dhan Singh Bisht (32), sarpanch, Thapliya Ganja van panchayat.

He opines that the 7 m distance maintained between the boxes should come down. “We did not have enough boxes to keep the hives closer. We need more bee boxes and further steps to fence the entire border. To this, Kumar says the project extension will be based on the result of the experiment.   

The beehive fence installed in Chausala in Fatehpur range (Photo - Ranger KL Arya, 101Reporters)

Van panchayat’s crucial role

One of the first things that the forest department did to ensure success of the project was to involve the community. “The responsibility of fence maintenance was assigned to the van panchayat. With the help of Haldwani-based NGO Chaitanya Maunalaya Evam Krishi Sewa Samiti, we trained van panchayat members and women in beekeeping. Forty boxes with bees and 20 empty units that the new queen bees in search of hives could utilise were provided,” informs DFO Kumar. So far, 18 villagers have received training.

Van panchayat has appointed a watchman for fence maintenance throughout the day for a monthly salary of Rs 6,000. Jamman Singh Bisht, the watchman, is assisted by the van sarpanch or villagers whenever needed.

“Rosewood, sal and other trees in the forest are in bloom. Litchi plants, which strongly attract honey bees, also blossom now. Many times, bees leave the boxes in swarms and settle on trees. I have to then bring them back using a waxed frame. Once they settle, I place the frame in one of the empty boxes,” Jamman details.

He adds that the bees have enough food around them now in spring, but have to be fed a solution of sugar or jaggery in the rainy season. Honey is produced in the hives every 45 days, depending on the season. 

Traditionally, van panchayats of Uttarakhand do works related to water conservation and land management to improve forest habitat. The department hires the villagers for wages for work inside the forest. However, for beekeeping in Thapliya Ganja, people are not paid.

The villagers are still enthusiastic as the project would save their crops from rampaging jumbos, besides enhancing the van panchayat’s income through sale of honey, wax and pollen. “A box can provide 15 to 25 kg of honey. The bees might have eaten some of the produce in the recent rainy days. As the production is based on the types of flowers they feed on, we go by a modest estimate of 5 kg per box,” says van sarpanch Dhan.

The van panchayat will sell the entire honey output to Chaitanya Samiti for Rs 400 to 500 per kg. Right now, they are awaiting the delivery of a honey extractor and a fumigation machine it will distract the bees while removing the honeycomb from the forest department. 

“The income from sales will be primarily used for paying the watchman’s salary. The rest will go into the installation of new boxes and arranging of food for bees.” Dhan says. He is happy that honey bees have made new homes in 15 of the 20 empty boxes.

Training underway at Thapliya Ganja where 18 villagers were taught about beekeeping and harvesting honey (Photo - Dhan Singh Bisht, 101Reporters)

Experimental phase

Human-animal conflicts killed 533 people in 2021-22, according to a reply given in the Lok Sabha on July 25 last year. During the same period, 65 jumbos were electrocuted in 12 states. According to Uttarakhand forest department, four elephants were electrocuted in the last five years in Kaladhungi range, but there were no human casualties. At least 48 cases of crop damage were registered.

Several measures have been adopted to stop jumbos in their natural habitats, including making water and fodder available inside forests, and managing pastures and wild bushes. In Uttarakhand, elephant proof trench, solar/electric fencing and stone wall have been tried, but none of them were cheap and fully effective.

“Solar/electric fencing can kill jumbos, whereas soil fills up in the trenches during rains. Trenches also promote erosion. In contrast, bees are a natural solution,” explains DFO Kumar. Trenches were tried in Thapliya Ganja and Rishikesh, but were not very effective. Besides electric fencing, thorny bushes were used in Haridwar. The same method was adopted in parts of West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu. Chilli cultivation served as a biofence in rainfed areas of Karnataka.

As for the beehive biofence, there is no definite claim on its functionality in India. However, taking inspiration from a Kenyan project, which was 80% successful, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) launched RE-HAB (Reducing Elephant-Human Attacks using Bees) in Karnataka in 2021. It was replicated in nine states, including Uttarakhand.

The forest department is satisfied with the results from such a fence in Chausala in Fatehpur range of Ramnagar division. The KVIC provided 330 bee boxes, after the villagers made a request in writing. Chaitanya Samiti served as nodal agency for the project launched last October.

“The CCTV data suggest its effectiveness. One of the images captured showed an elephant near the fence, but it made no attempt to breach the bee boxes,Fatehpur Range Officer KL Arya told 101Reporters.

The KVIC employs two persons for fence maintenance. It has also trained 33 farmers in beekeeping. On project completion, 10 beehive boxes will be given to each of these farmers. “This is a yearlong research to understand how beehive fences can prevent man-elephant conflict,” says JS Malik, Assistant Director, KVIC, Dehradun.

Meanwhile, Chausala village head Bhupal Singh claims that the beehive fence has been effective up to 90%. “Our village is like an island in the middle of a jungle and elephants can come anytime. Ever since the biofence was set up, elephant movement has reduced. We saw CCTV images of elephants breaking two bee boxes, but they never took that route again!”

Haridwar had experimented with biofence in 2019 itself, when Akash Verma was the DFO there. “We used thorny bamboo and lemongrass in a stretch of about one km each. The bamboo idea was a success as jumbo movement in that route stopped. On the flip side, the plant took time to grow and mature. The scent of lemongrass, planted 15 to 20 m apart, did not deter the jumbos,” Verma, now Conservator of Forests, North Kumaon Circle, told 101Reporters.

According to Malik, bees can boost agricultural production by 30 to 35% as they are excellent pollinators. If the fence works, elephants will spare the crops and bees will improve crop yields, thus killing two birds with one stone.   

Cover photo - Beehive fences being installed at Thapliya Ganja (Photo - Dhan Singh Bisht, 101Reporters)

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

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