Pachyderm Peppers

Sometimes a low tech solution far outperforms more high tech or direct measures. In this case red hot chili peppers serve to save farmer’s crops from elephants.

Get a whiff of this!

Elephants Now Think Twice About Midnight Snacks in Tanzania

MIKUMI VILLAGE, Tanzania—Snap. Crack. Pop.

That’s the sound of an African elephant with a dangerous case of the munchies crashing through underbrush at 25 miles per hour.

Said Longwa, a 52-year-old farmer and father of nine, used to face down crop-raiding elephants with nothing but a flashlight. Others in Mikumi village would beat tin cans or light fires; some exploded homemade pipe bombs. But the sound and fury didn’t deter the largest land mammals on Earth from staging nightly assaults on fields of corn and watermelon.

[ELEPHANT]A BULL ELEPHANT

During the worst period of crop raids several years ago, charging elephants killed three people from Mr. Longwa’s village, in the Morogoro region in central Tanzania, more than 118 miles from the coastal capital of Dar es Salaam.

When the elephants visit Mr. Longwa’s cornfield these days, they screw up their long noses and trumpet in consternation.

Mr. Longwa has treated his fence with chili mixed with engine oil—a preparation that adheres to the fence, even in heavy rain. “They will mull it over and often circle two to three times,” the farmer says of the elephants that approach his fence. “But once they get a real whiff of the chili, they snuffle and sneeze.” And leave the scene.

A successful campaign against poachers—and the expansion of national park land—has seen a rise in the elephant population in parts of east Africa. Meanwhile, more farmers are settling nearby in search of fertile land. The result is a rising number of face-to-face meetings between man and elephant.

The encounters, in turn, have spawned an industry of elephant whisperers, or fundi, as they are known in Swahili—each with his own homegrown remedy for keeping pachyderms at bay.

Birds and insects cause crop damage, too. But they don’t consume 660 pounds of food in 18 hours, as big elephants tend to do. Herds of 15 to 20 can quickly wipe out an entire field and obliterate all the work of a subsistence farmer.

African elephants also can be very sneaky.

Crop raiders tend to work as teams—typically involving three to five elephant family members. Farmers say a lone elephant will scout for tasty, ripe crops. The next night, the scout returns with ravenously hungry reinforcements.

Wildlife experts ruled out some proposals, such as electric fences. They worried fences would prevent wildlife migration. And maintenance and generator costs struck them as too high.

Enter Lucas Malugu, a young expert in elephant behavior and psychology at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute who came up with the chili concoction after researching elephant repellents.

In 2006, he started a two-year research project to study crop-raiding on the western boundary of the Serengeti, the national park Tanzania shares with Kenya. Pachyderms, he discovered, had developed a penchant for maize, as corn is called here.

The farm crops often taste better than dry grass and contain more calories, thereby luring elephants from national parks into farms. The more delectable the crop the worse the damage; maize and watermelon topped the menu.

“It was an epidemic,” said Mr. Malugu of the elephants in the Serengeti.

Even though elephants don’t eat cotton and tobacco, they trample through these cash crops anyway. The raiding increases sharply during harvest times and in a drought. Between 2007 and 2009, about 60 districts in Tanzania reported serious conflicts between elephants and people, according to government figures.

Following consultation with colleagues in neighboring Zambia, and talks with local farmers, Mr. Malugu hit on his chili strategy. It came to him after observing the reactions of elephants after they get the slightest whiff of the stuff.

Elephants don’t see well, but they have very sensitive noses. When elephants want to assess a situation, they lift their trunks into a so-called snorkel maneuver, says Mr. Malugu.

Wildlife experts began testing the chili solution in several areas of the country. Nongovernment organizations, including World Society for Protection of Animals, World Wildlife Fund and Unesco Rapid Response, have stepped in with funding and with help training farmers.

The farmers themselves remained skeptical through the initial stages of the program. “We didn’t believe it would work,” says Mr. Longwa, the maize farmer in Mikumi. “When we looked at the size of the elephant…we thought the chili fence is just too simple.”

Yet weary farmers in Mikumi village were ready to try alternatives to round-the-clock crop surveillance. Soon villagers began noticing elephant footprints stopping abruptly at the edge of chili fields and tracking back to other plots. One farmer says he watched an elephant pause at the fence and then try to reverse through it holding his trunk up in the air to avoid the stink.

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