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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 1:20 EDT

Chillies cool conflict between man and elephants

September 6, 2005

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – It has spiced up many a meal but
now the fiery chilli pepper is being used to cool an ancient
feud between farmers and wild elephants in Africa.

In the Zambezi valley in southern Zambia, small-scale
farmers are growing chilli peppers as a deterrent against
elephants that raid their crops — and marketing the end result
as an eco-friendly product.

“Elephants simply don’t like the smell of chilli,” said
Nina Gibson, project coordinator for the Elephant Pepper
Development Trust.

The deterrents used are simpler to make than many chilli
recipes but probably have more kick.

“The farmers crush the chillies they grow and mix them with
old engine oil. They smear that paste onto a simple string
fence around their field, protecting their other crops,” said
Gibson.

Another approach involves mixing crushed, dried chillies
with animal dung into a “chilli brick.”

These are burned at night, carrying an extremely noxious
smoke that will repel even the most ravenous pachyderm.

“Electric fences are clearly not an option for a
small-scale farmer because of the costs, so they have to use
other means to keep the elephants out,” said Gibson.

Eighty farmers are involved in the Zambezi Valley chilli
project and they have an added incentive to grow the hot
peppers — they can tap the growing market of discerning
consumers who want to buy “green products” that do not damage
the environment.

MORE ELEPHANTS, MORE PEOPLE

From Kenya to Namibia, elephants and farmers are coming
into closer contact as growing populations put pressure on
land.

The animals can wipe out the annual harvests of entire
villages with devastating consequences for the rural poor who
often live on a knife-edge of survival.

Farmers crack whips, burn fires and beat drums to keep the
animals out but guarding their crops at night is dangerous,
saps productivity and can leave them open to diseases like
malaria.

Last month, Kenya began a massive operation to move 400
elephants from a crowded reserve on its Indian Ocean coast to
protect the environment and reduce conflict with local people.

Elephants from Botswana sometimes thunder across the border
into Namibia, trampling crops and sometimes even children.

“Human/wildlife conflicts are becoming more acute in
Africa,” Graeme Patterson of the U.S.-based World Conservation
Society, one of the project’s sponsors, told Reuters by
telephone from his office at the Bronx Zoo.

“Our belief is that unless you can resolve these conflicts
farmers will take things into their own hands. It’s negative
for people and wildlife,” he said.

The World Conservation Union — a body whose estimates on
animal populations are among the most authoritative — said in
June that elephant numbers in east and south Africa were
rising.

It said surveys showed elephant numbers in the two regions
rose to 355,000 from 283,000 in the five years to 2002 — a
growth rate of about 4.5 percent per year.

But human populations are also growing rapidly on the
world’s poorest continent, stoking conflict with big animals
and raising the stakes in the game to dangerous levels.

ELEPHANT PEPPER

The Elephant Pepper Development Trust says farmers have
resettled the Zambezi valley in large numbers in the last 20
years because of pressure on land elsewhere and they have found
themselves competing with thousands of elephants.

Its chilli project aims to ease the tension, but the
spin-off crops could also prove lucrative.

Three products have been launched under the label “Elephant
Pepper” and have hit the shelves in South Africa, where the
chillies grown in Zambezi are processed.

“Zambezi Red” is a sauce that claims to be “as hot as the
valley from whence it comes.” A chilli jam and a chilli relish
are also produced under the label.

To drive the point home the labels proudly proclaim that
“Elephants hate chilli!” Turnover since March has only been
around 250,000 rand but it is a start.

First tested in northern Zimbabwe, chilli deterrents are
also used in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Laos and Thailand.

“We see a whole range of wildlife friendly products based
around the concept that certain crops may be useful as barriers
between humans and wildlife,” Patterson said.

Conservationists say the project is an innovative way to
help subsistence farmers find markets for their cash crops
while bringing some lasting peace between man and beast.

“There are regular incidents of destruction of crops by
elephants simply because of high demand for land use by people
in that area (the Zambezi Valley),” said Maureen Mwape,
spokeswoman for the Zambia Wildlife Authority.

“It appears people and the elephants are always competing
for land,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Shapi Shacinda in Lusaka)