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Elephant Crop Raids Foiled by Chili Peppers, Africa Project Finds

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
September 18, 2006
 
Conflicts between farmers and elephants have long been widespread in
Africa, where pachyderms nightly destroy crops, raid grain houses, and
sometimes kill people.

Now farmers are fighting back with an unlikely weapon: chili peppers.

Elephants don't like capsaicin, the chemical in chilies that makes them hot.

By planting a few rows of the pungent fruit around valuable crops, framers create a buffer zone through which the elephants are reluctant to pass.

Loki Osborn of the Elephant Pepper Development Trust (EPDT) based in Cape Town, South Africa, came up with the idea.

He first started using pepper spray to deter bears in North America.

"I then brought this technology to Africa [in 1997]," Osborn said. "But it was just too expensive, so I started getting farmers to grow their own chili."

The chili peppers, he says, give farmers an economically feasilble means for keeping elephants away from crops through nonlethal methods.

Chili-Dung "Bombs"

Osborn shows farmers how to use cheap, readily available materials to make deterrents like briquettes of crushed chili and animal dung.

The bricks are then burned, creating a noxious smoke that keeps hungry elephants out of farmers' fields of maize, sorghum, and millet.

The program also calls for using string fences that are slathered with chili-infused grease and mounted with cowbells that act as alarms when the fence is disturbed.

The trust has held training sessions in African and Asian countries where elephant raids have been persistent problems, including Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Kenya, Cambodia, and Thailand.

"In areas where farmers are using our community-based problem-animal control techniques, most farmers have reduced crop loss by at least 90 percent," Osborn said.

Elephant raids usually take place after the sun goes down.

Protecting crops at night is a dangerous and tiresome activity for farmers, Osborn says.

But if the hungry beasts aren't kept at bay, the loss of food and income has a devastating effect on farmers' families.

"Even if it's once every ten years that their entire field is wiped out, [farmers'] children will go hungry," said James Deutsch, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Africa Program.

"There is no welfare system."

Conservation

Today about 600,000 elephants roam Africa, with the largest populations found in the southern, eastern, and central areas of the continent.

(See African elephant wallpaper photos, videos, fast facts, and more.)

In the 1980s their numbers dipped to dangerously low levels due to ivory poaching, but an effort to bring back the tusked mammal has had considerable success.

At the same time, there's been a growing population of Africans trying to make a living in agriculture.

Now man and beast clash, competing with one another for land and food.

"Trying to resolve conflict between elephants and farmers is really one of the key challenges in conservation across Africa," Deutsch said.

Chili peppers are just one of the low-tech tools Osborn has tried.

Last year he experimented with honeybees, placing hives around fields in the hopes that the stinging insects would deter elephants from raiding crops.

It didn't work.

"We got stung," he said of the project's failure.

In the past farmers scared off elephants by beating drums or cracking whips. But eventually the animals became used to the noises and were no longer frightened.

Electric fences have been successful at stopping elephants, Deutsch says, but they require expensive upkeep.

So far the red peppers appear to be an easy, cost-effective means of warding off pachyderms without harming them, Osborn says.

"But it's not a silver bullet," Deutsch warned. "Farmers must also take responsibility for their own fields.

"During key harvest times someone needs to keep an eye on the field 24 hours a day."

A Hot Cash Crop

The chilies also provide farmers with a cash crop.

One farmer who lives on the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia (see Zambia map), has more than doubled his income by growing chilies instead of vegetables.

The peppers from his farm and others are turned into hot sauce products, which are sold in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and the United States.

Proceeds from the sales are donated to the Elephant Pepper Development Trust.

"This is a great example of how conservation and development can be successfully combined into a win-win situation," Deutsch said.

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