Many communities in African nations struggle to resolve human-wildlife conflict, working to protect precious but threatened species while ensuring their own economic prosperity. The people living near South Luangwa National Park in Zambia have hit on a win-win solution that comes from an intriguing source: chili peppers.
The elephants don’t like them, but pachyderm deterrence is only part of the story because farming the red-hot peppers also boosts income and creates a revenue stream for families that have to coexist with them.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture agency began recommending the chili pepper strategy a decade ago, and the Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) organization – alongside partners including WWF Zambia, the DNPW government parks agency and the nearby Flatdogs Camp resort – have made the idea their own.
Billy Banda, the CSL coordinator for mitigating human wildlife conflict, began training chili farmers in the Kakumbi community in 2007, and his roughly two dozen chili farmers have grown into a small agricultural industry of more than 200.
Community members sell their peppers to CSL, and the organization in turn sells the peppers to the Lusaka-based Rivonia Farm Products, a company that bottles hot pepper sauce. For Christine Sakala, who began farming peppers in 2018, that’s made it easier to earn money to pay children’s school fees and other expenses.
It’s also made it easier to protect her family’s property. Trampling elephants have damaged her home twice, but the smell of the chilis now wards off their intrusions. The same is true for crops like maize and the entire harvest that elephants can destroy in a single night.
“No elephants have passed close to my crop fields,” says Bernard Sakala, who began farming chili peppers the same year. The community recognizes the value of protecting the elephants, but it’s a lot easier to do when they’re not causing economic or physical harm.
Discouraging the elephant visits while saving the species is a priority, so CSL and the farmers don’t sell all of their product. They keep some as ammunition, because one of the strategies for preventing human-wildlife conflict involves “hunting” elephants with pepper-ball launchers, which look something like blaster guns for water fights but are known as the “Mhiripiri Bomber.”
Some of the chilis are converted into a liquid that’s soaked into little balls that Banda calls “chili bomber bullets.”
“These balls are being used by chili patrollers,” he explains. Patrol teams like the one shown above sit at the edge of farming fields and watch for errant elephants; when they see them, they shoot them with the chili-soaked balls. It doesn’t hurt the elephants, but the sound, sting and smell irritate them enough to force a retreat, and the chili-pepper patrols created jobs too.
The chili-pepper blasters are used in conjunction with what CSL calls a “tool box” approach to managing human-wildlife conflict. Another strategy involves mixing the chilis into elephant-dung bricks, which also act as a deterrent when placed around farm fields and houses. The sun-dried bricks are set on fire in the evening, and slowly release “chili smoke” that the elephants avoid.
The organization also supports traditional anti-poaching efforts, wildlife rescue and veterinary services.