Elephants enjoy a good marula fruit as much as anyone.
But at the Kruger National Park in South Africa their love of marula is becoming something of a problem, as they risk destroying the trees that carry them, which provide an additional source of income to the local community. So the NGO Elephants Alive is running a project to try and protect the local ecosystem and prevent the elephants from damaging the trees.
“The elephants really, really enjoy the fruit of marulas,” says Michelle Henley, co-founder of Elephants Alive. “I’ve seen a bull guarding a tree and chasing away anything that happened to come past that tree. Marulas are one of their preferred species that they browse on. So they enjoy eating the bark, new leaves and, obviously, the fruit.”
In order to protect the trees, the team is experimenting with beehives. It’s not such a well-known fact, but elephants don’t like the buzzing sound or being stung by bees. So the team has built just over 100 beehives and hung them along a fence of trees to see if they keep the elephants at bay. It’s an important experiment for the local population.
“Marula is what we would refer to as a cultural keystone species,” explains Wayne Twine, Associate Professor at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. “In the local culture it has high value because of the wide range of uses that people get from the tree. Obviously the fruit are eaten, they’re used to brew traditional beer, people also use it to make jam and the edible kernel is also highly valued. And then there are a whole range of medicinal uses of the plant. It’s also valuable for shade.”
The threat of real bees seems to help deter elephants, and as an added bonus, the hives produce honey, wax and propolis, a special medicinal resin collected by bees.
Marula tree experiments are already being tested by farmers in several African countries, including Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, and are also being run as pilot projects in some countries in Asia.