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Cornflakes forgotten, Samantha Du Toit’s children listen wide-eyed to an ancient African folktale about the largest of land animals being afraid of a tiny honey bee, and how this is presently being used to help farmers protect their crops.

The elephant and the bee. It sounds like the start of one of Aesop’s fables; a story of the largest of land animals being afraid of a tiny honey bee. Instead it is an ancient African folktale, and it turns out to be true. The children listened wide-eyed over breakfast one morning to the story of how elephants all over Africa hate even the sound of buzzing bees, turning tail and fleeing from the noise. Cornflakes forgotten, they listened to Lucy King, who works with ‘Save the Elephants’, explain how she had taken the folktale, tried and tested it, and then turned it into a means to help farmers protect their crops from raiding elephants.

‘So, the farmers get a fence made of bee hives which stops elephants coming in. They then get honey to sell and the bees may in turn help pollinate more of their crops. This sounds like a good idea all round!’  Seyia, our daughter, concludes.

Elephants have returned to this area after perhaps a couple of decades of absence. Where once simply to see their tracks was exciting, they are now a very common feature of the landscape. Maasai people of my age tell me that all their children have seen elephants now and know what they are, where as when they were children themselves elephants were merely mentioned in stories of the past. This, from a wildlife conservation perspective, is a source of pride for the local communities who believe that elephants feel this is a safe place to be. But there is a cost too. Elephants have found their way to the local farming area, and can devastate a farmer’s crop in mere minutes. And regularly do so.

Fast forward a few months; the children and I joined the team from Save the Elephants, together with the local farmers and other community members, to build some beehive fences for three farmers up in the fields. The children got straight in, helping to dig holes, hold up bee hives (empty as yet), clip wire and of course have sweet, milky tea during the break. At the end of the day, we all feasted on fresh goat stew provided by the farmer as gratitude for the team effort.

The sun was setting behind the escarpment by the time we were driving into camp, the children tired, dirty and ready for bed. They looked up sleepily as we passed a herd of six bull elephants making their way out of the thickets and into the plains for the night. We whispered to the elephants as we went by that they were welcome to stay here on the plains and away from the farms, while we all hoped the bee hives would fill quickly with bees, so as to dissuade these majestic animals from eating where they were not welcome. I remembered the saying ‘one man’s pain is another man’s pleasure’ which applied so well to this story. It made me realise more clearly than ever that if conservation is to succeed, we must do all that we can to turn more peoples’ pain into pleasure.

Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy

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