September 7, 2005

Chilis Cool Conflict Between Man and Elephants

JOHANNESBURG -- It has spiced up many a meal but now the fiery chili 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 chili 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 chili," said Nina Gibson, project coordinator for the Elephant Pepper Development Trust.

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

"The farmers crush the chilies 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 chilis with animal dung into a "chili 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 chili 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.


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.


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 chili 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 chilis grown in Zambezi are processed.

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

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

First tested in northern Zimbabwe, chili 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)