Elephants get a chilli reception

Posted on 15 October 2003    
Farmers come down from a watch tower used to spot elephants, Transmara, Kenya.
© WWF / Martin Harvey
Elephants are a frightening reality to many rural Africans. As their natural habitat shrinks, the animals frequently raid crops — destroying farmers' livelihoods and sometimes taking their lives. But now there's a simple solution that's proving a hot way to keep elephants out of fields.

Alfonso Namilepe surveys his field. The sugar cane stalks are flattened and half-eaten crops lie all around. This was his only livelihood. In one night, it's all gone. "The armed conflict in Mozambique has finished, but now there's another war," he says, looking as devastated as his field.

Over 1,400km away in Kenya's Transmara district, farmers come down from a rickety tree-top watch tower. They have worked in shifts through the night, guarding their fields from a well-organized raid. But the raiders aren't humans — they're elephants.

To many, elephants are a mythical symbol of power and wisdom. To rural Africans, they can be a frightening reality. The largest land mammal in the world, African elephants (Loxodonta africana) once roamed across most of the African continent, from the Mediterranean coast right down to the southern tip. Just 100 years ago, there may have been 5 million of them. Today there's no more than 500,000, living in fragmented populations in sub-Saharan regions.

The ivory trade was a major factor behind the African elephant's decline. But although poaching for meat and ivory is still a problem, the biggest threat to their continued survival is loss of habitat.

"With the rapid growth in human populations over the past 30 years, large areas of savanna and forest have been converted into agricultural land," explains Dr Noah Sitati, an elephant expert working for the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) in Kenya. "This forces the elephants into smaller and smaller areas." This has led to increasing conflict between humans and elephants.

Kenya's Transmara district, located next to the world famous Masai Mara Game Reserve, is one conflict hotspot. The traditional inhabitants of the region, the nomadic, cattle-herding Maasai, have lived alongside elephants for centuries.

But over the last decade, large numbers of migrants have come to the area, attracted by the good farming conditions. The new farms have replaced more than half of the elephant's habitat. Many are right in the middle of established elephant paths. And maize, a staple crop, is too much for elephants to resist.

"Elephants can smell ripe maize from a distance of 10km," says Sitati. "They send a few ahead to see if the maize is ready before the full herd advances — making a beeline for tall ripe cobs. At harvest time they can easily trample and eat an entire year's crop in one night."

Crop raiding is the most common type of human-elephant conflict, occurring throughout Africa wherever elephants and farmers live near one another. The animals can also disrupt daily life. Children in the Transmara are often too frightened to walk to and from school, or have to leave school early because elephants are in the area. As a result, many children's education has suffered.

Sometimes the conflict ends in tragedy. "Elephants have killed 200 people in Kenya and injured many more over the past 7 years," says Dr PJ Stephenson from WWF's African Elephant Programme. "And northern Mozambique — where elephants destroy up to two-thirds of crops each year — lions, hyenas, and other predators have learned that a farmer guarding his field at night is easy prey. In one year, there were 52 hyena attacks in one small district, resulting in 28 deaths."

Elephants too are often killed. In Kenya, wildlife authorities shoot between 50 and 120 elephants each year in response to the animals harming people or their livelihoods. Some villages take the law in to their own hands and kill many more animals. The situation is the same wherever elephants come in to conflict with people.

Because the scale of the problem has only recently become so large, solutions have only just started being developed. One problem is that elephants are not just big, but smart — they can knock down regular fences, and figure out how to disable electric fences. They also quickly become habituated to loud noises made by farmers defending their fields.

But it seems they have one weak spot — they don't like spicy food.

Chilli was shown to be an effective elephant deterrent in Zimbabwe in 2000. It's either grown around crops that elephants like to eat, used with engine oil to paint fiery rope barriers around fields, or burnt with elephant dung to produce a pungent smoke. "It's a simple and effective solution, but it sometimes requires patience," says Peter Bechtel, who is working with WWF in Mozambique's Quirimbas National Park to help communities cope with elephants.

“For example, elephants were drinking at a water hole near one village every night and damaging fields on the way in and out. The community set up oiled ropes around the water hole. For three nights the smell of the chilli kept the elephants away, but the next night they broke the ropes and drank. The ropes were repaired but the elephants broke them again later. The village was about to give up ... but the elephants never came back. Twice was enough!"

In another village, a farmer decided to use chilli bombs to defend his cabbage patch, which elephants had destroyed before. "When he heard the elephants approaching through the forest, the farmer burnt chilli bombs in four locations around his fields," says Bechtel. "The bull elephant came in first and encountered the smoke. He snorted and shook his head, then turned and ran off. The others followed, and all stayed away from the entire village for 5 weeks." This had positive repercussions for the whole village. With no elephants around, mangoes were harvested for the first time in 10 years.

To further improve crop protection, WWF is advising villagers to plant their fields next to each other in blocks outside the forest to make them easier to defend. After receiving training, most villages have set up committees to oversee the crop protection work. They've also started growing chilli so they don't have to rely on project support. A combination of chilli ropes and watchtowers has also proved very effective in Kenya's Transmara district.

"The watchtowers provide an 'early warning detection system'," explains Sitati. "If the farmers see or hear elephants approaching, they can usually scare them off using bright lights and noise. The chilli ropes form a second line of defence. We need to keep rotating our tactics, otherwise the elephants eventually learn to get around them.

"WWF and DICE are also recommending that farmers grow crops that elephants don't like instead of maize, such as chilli and chrysanthemum, from which the natural insecticide pyrethrum is produced. Alternative income projects are also being promoted, such as honey production from the rich forests. The Maasai hope to develop tourism in the area too.

Changes to village planning could help as well. WWF's analysis revealed that many of those injured or killed by elephants in the Transmara district might have been filled with false courage or else slow to react — about one-third of the attacks occurred after the victims had left a bar situated near the maize fields. An easy if unpopular solution: close bars that are near fields.

Thanks to these combined measures, human-elephant conflict has been markedly reduced in Mozambique's Quirimbas National Park and Kenya's Transmara district. WWF plans to extend the work to other communities throughout Africa.

"The most important aspect of this work is that it helps local people deal with their everyday problems," says Stephenson. "The success in reducing crop-raiding and increasing crop yields has made people more enthusiastic and supportive of conservation, and has demonstrated that people can live alongside wildlife while developing sustainable livelihoods. And that in turn should help ensure a long future for the elephants!" It seems the hottest ideas really are the simplest.

* Emma Duncan is Managing Editor at WWF International.

Further information

African elephants
The African elephant is the world’s largest land mammal, with males weighing up to 7,500kg. The savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana) inhabits grasslands and woodlands mostly in east and southern Africa, while the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) is found in the dense tropical moist forests of central and west Africa.The animals play an important role in the forest and savannah ecosystems in which they live. For example, seeds from at least a third of tree species in West African forests need to pass through an elephant’s digestive tract before they can germinate.While poaching for meat and the illegal trade in ivory and poaching remains a real threat to the species, current concern for the survival of the African elephant centres around the reduction of their habitat.

WWF's work on African elephants
WWF's African Elephant Programme was launched in 2000 to conserve forest and savannah elephant populations across Africa by supporting projects that improve protection and management, build capacity within range states, mitigate human-elephant conflict, and reduce illegal trade. The human-elephant conflict work is carried out in partnership with the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

Quirimbas National Park

Established in July 2002 with help from WWF's African Elephant Programme, Mozambique's Quirimbas National Park conserves some 600,000ha of woodland and savannah elephant habitat and one of Mozambique's most important elephant populations. One reason local communities supported park gazettement was that they hoped for park support in dealing with a growing problem of human-elephant conflict. Elephants frequently leave the park to crop-raid in local fields. The project is therefore working with park staff to help communities set up a range of different systems to mitigate this conflict. The park is also helping local people to protect their fishing grounds from industrial trawlers.

WWF's work on human-elephant conflict in Asia
Human-elephant conflict is also a problem in Asia. Elephants are particularly fond of oil palm, which is grown in large plantations in many parts of southeast Asia, and which is replacing natural forest. WWF's Asian Rhino and Elephant Strategy (AREAS) is working in Asia to mitigate this conflict, using similar techniques as used in Africa. AREAS is also surveying Asian elephant populations, monitoring illegal trade (through TRAFFIC), doing communications and outreach, and providing technical support.
Farmers come down from a watch tower used to spot elephants, Transmara, Kenya.
© WWF / Martin Harvey Enlarge
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the world's largest land mammal.
© WWF / Martin Harvey Enlarge
Victim of elephant attack, Transmara, Kenya.
© WWF / Martin Harvey Enlarge
Noah Sitati talking to school children, Transmara, Kenya.
© WWF / Martin Harvey Enlarge
Demonstration of chilli bombs used to deter elephants, Quirimbas, Mozambique.
© WWF / Tanya Petersen Enlarge

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