Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fight elephants with peppers, U.N. tells farmers

In recent years, African elephants have earned the nickname "the world's largest garden pest" by gobbling up to 300 pounds of crops in a single day. Farmers whose crops are raided by wild animals like elephants should try driving them away with pepper spray, using guard donkeys or booby trapping food with snakes, the U.N. said on Monday.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) unveiled in a statement on its website a "toolkit" it suggests should be taught or handed out to farmers, particularly in Africa, to stop them killing wildlife.

Competition between wild animals and humans is major source of
conflict, especially in Africa where growing human populations require ever more land for crops and livestock.

Elephants and baboons hemmed in by dwindling wilderness can devastate
crops. Hungry lions can lay waste to cattle. "With the world's population growing at some 75 million a year, humans and wildlife are having to squeeze ever more tightly together, increasing the risk of conflict," it said.

In 2008 in an effort to combat this problem, Kenya launched an experimental program to use mobile phone technology and GPS to monitor elephants with a history of raiding crops outside their nature preserve.

The move by the group Save the Elephants came after the Kenya Wildlife Service was forced two years prior to shoot five of the animals that refused to stop raiding crops. In June 2008, a mobile phone SIM card was placed in the collar of an elephant named Kimani that had been spared. Then, if the animal approaches a virtual “geofence,” a text message with its exact location is sent to rangers, who then guide the wandering jumbo back into the reserve.

For other angry farmers who often kill elephants that ruin their crops, the FAO has another suggestion: chili peppers. Apparently, elephants dislike
capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers taste hot) and turn up their trunks to peppers. Farmers can grow peppers as a valuable cash crop without fear of elephant "raids" or they can use peppers as ammunition to drive the crop raiding elephants away. By planting a few rows of chili peppers around the perimeter of their crops, farmers have created a buffer zone that's spicy enough to keep elephants, buffalo, and other hungry mammals away.

A plastic gun that fires ping-pong balls full of chili that bursts on an elephant's skin and will send it running for cover. Another method suggests setting fire to a chili-based mixture so the smoke deters the elephant. Farmers also can mix the chili peppers into a spray that drives animals away.

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 peppers as an eco-friendly product.

The chilies also provide farmers with a cash crop. One farmer who lives
on the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia, has more than doubled his income by growing chilies instead of vegetables. The peppers from his farm and others are turned into hot sauce products, which are sold in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and the United States.

Kenyan donkeys, FAO notes, are aggressive in defending farm land against even animals a lot bigger than they are.

"Baboons which enter buildings to steal food may be scared off by placing a snake, preferably alive, inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread," the FAO statement said. In Mozambique, where crocodiles kill 300 people a year, proper fencing at watering points could save lives. Hippos can be deterred at night by a bright torch shinning at them.

"Whatever the specific measures taken, it is important that they are
introduced soon," FAO Forestry and Wildlife Officer Rene Czudek said. "The alternative could be the ... loss of wildlife as we know it across much of Africa."

The report does however note there are risks attached: hippos and elephants are extremely aggressive and can charge, so a gun might be a sensible back-up option.

Reuters, "Fight elephants with peppers, U.N. tells farmers", accessed July 19, 2010
National Geographic, "News: Elephant Pepper's Spicy Stab at Conservation", accessed July 19, 2010

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