Warding Off Marauding Elephants with Chili Peppers

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In southern Africa and other places where wild elephants roam, they often destroy farm fields and sometimes kill farmers. Electric fences, moats and rifles aren't enough. Now farmers are trying a low-tech solution — red-hot chili peppers.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Elephants are revered in some countries, but in parts of Africa and Asia they're viewed as giant, scary pests that destroy crops. Electric fences can keep wild elephants away, but they can be expensive to maintain. So for years, farmers have been looking for a quicker, cheaper answer, and they may have found it growing right underneath their noses. NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Here's a tip for everybody who's trying to keep pachyderms out of their backyards. Elephants everywhere absolutely hate red-hot chili peppers.

(Soundbite of song "Give It Away")

THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS (Rock Band): (Singing) Oh, give it away, give it away, give it away now. Give it away, give it away, give it away now.

NIELSEN: No, not the band. The real thing: peppers people grow in gardens found all over the world; peppers that inspire hot sauces with names like Mega Death and Mad Dog 357; peppers that make your nose and throat feel like they just burst into flames.

It turns out that elephants have a similar reaction to these peppers. Give them but a whiff and they will dance around like cartoon characters, so says Loki Osborn of the nonprofit Elephant Pepper Development Trust.

Mr. LOKI OSBORN (Elephant Pepper Development Trust): They flair out their ears, shake their head back and forth, a lot of strong exhalation of air - (makes blowing sound) - you know, and sometimes like high-pitched trumpeting, which makes most of the farmers laugh a lot because they know exactly what the elephant's feeling.

NIELSEN: The Trust, based in South Africa, has been promoting the use of red-hot peppers as a low-tech way to drive hungry elephants away from farm fields. Osborn says it works in part because while we humans have mere noses on our faces, elephants have giant trunks that are incredibly sensitive to capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot.

Mr. OSBORN: Their whole trunk is coated with a mucus membrane, and elephants have 100 or 200 times better sense of smell than humans. So when they breathe in even very, very small amounts of atomized capsaicin that you get when you burn a chili, for example, their whole trunk is stimulated.

NIELSEN: Osborn started stimulating elephant trunks in the late 1990s after hearing stories about farmers using peppers in the old days. Since then he's taught hundreds of farmers to plant hot chili pepper buffer zones around their fields and to create what he calls dung bombs out of ground-up peppers and dry elephant poop. When these bombs are burned, they send out spicy smoke that helps drive big groups of elephants away for hours at a time.

Mr. OSBORN: In some cases you have 50 or 60 animals visiting a field from 6:00 p.m. till 3:00 a.m.

NIELSEN: Scientists don't really know how well the red-hot chili pepper defense is working just yet, and some of them worry that elephants driven off the peppered fields just end up on other farms. But in southern Africa, the program is a hit, with farmers lining up to get involved in it. Pilot pepper programs are now up and running in Cambodia and Thailand, too.

And if the thought of putting all those elephants through all that pain seems a bit cruel to you, Osborn advises you to think a bit about the alternatives. For poor framers, they consist of waiting in farm fields in the middle of the night with a lot of pots and pans on which they are forced to bang when they see elephants approaching. Some of these farmers end up getting stomped to death, says Osborn. Most of the rest accomplish nothing in the end.

Mr. OSBORN: And these animals would charge them and chase them around the fields and scare the farmers quite a bit. And usually what they do is abandon all of their fields to the animals, and the animals would end up just consuming virtually everything.

NIELSEN: Farmers who lose everything to animals like these will look the other way when poachers come around. In that sense the plan B faced by many of the elephants might just be a bullet through the forehead. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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