Bees and chilis turn elephants and farmers into good neighbours

People come to Africa to see elephants, and such safari tourism is a source of revenue for many African countries. But African farmers, especially those living around wildlife reserves, have often had a much different and less harmonious relationship with elephants.

Elephants can destroy a farmer’s crops overnight, despite deterrents such as noise making and expensive electric fences, and elephant-human conflict has often worsened as herds grow due to conservation while farmers expand agricultural areas. Often it becomes a local political problem.

Successfully managing elephants and farms in the same area rapidly became one of the most pressing wildlife management issues in Africa.

Back in the 1990s, American zoologist Loki Osborn had begun to wonder if there was a practical, win-win solution that would protect elephants, farmers, and crops – protecting the crops by using hot peppers that repelled elephants’ sensitive trunks. He knew that hot pepper extracts had been used in bear repellents in the American west, and his family was involved with the production of spicy Tabasco sauce.

Having shown through his research in Zimbabwe and Uganda that peppers could effectively deter elephants, Osborn began to work on ways to encourage farmers to use them. As well as teaching a suite of practical strategies to repel elephants with chili fences and smoke, that meant finding ways for them to benefit from growing peppers. 

At first, he had imported the hot sauce from the US for his experiments but then he brought habanero and tabasco pepper seeds back to Zimbabwe with the goal of growing peppers there. In 1994 he created the Elephant Pepper Development Trust and began producing a line of gourmet hot sauces. He worked from his kitchen in Zimbabwe, making about 500 bottles of hot sauce a year for sale in local supermarkets.’

‘One of the frustrations of being a zoologist is that you don’t really produce anything,” he told the New York Times. “This way, he said, he may be able to create jobs, a market for a new crop, and perhaps save a few elephants — and a few farmers.”

He has done much more than that over the intervening years. By working with farmers and community as partners, and using low tech strategies, his work has turned conservation into a practical strategy that sustains farmers even as it protects elephants and farmers physically. Effectively, it has helped changed the conservation approach to one that is as much livelihood- and trade-based as it is aid-based – as focused on improving livelihood for farmers as it is on protecting wildlife. 

And its influence has spread far beyond Zimbabwe and Uganda’s Murchison Falls, where it started. In 2010, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recommended such natural strategies as a way of protecting both crops and wildlife.

Now known as Connected Conservation and the Pepper Company, it summarizes the rationale this way: “The essential idea is to provide a sustainable income for individuals who participate in conservation measures that reduce HEC. Ethically sourced ingredients are developed into quality value added products with revenue from the sales benefitting participating farmers.” The Pepper Company now sells a range of products aimed at small niche markets that are made from ingredients obtained from various human-wildlife conflict areas.

Other groups have taken up the pepper-growing strategy. 

Since early 2015, for example, the African Wildlife Foundation has helped create 12 farmer groups that involve more than 400 people living around Murchison Falls National Park who had returned to the area after being displaced by conflict in 2007-8. Elephants had come to think of the land as unoccupied and their crop-raiding made it hard for farmers to make a living, so a practical solution was needed to protect farmers and elephants. It has had the additional benefit of creating some new business possibilities.

“Some groups have set up chili nurseries, and others have started a savings scheme by pooling their funds and providing loans within the group. Together, they can buy chilies from other groups and identify new exporters for their products while also training more farmers to adopt chili farming. A bumper yield between 2016-2018 drastically improved earnings for most farmers — over 12,664 kg of chili was harvested and fetched just over US $29,000.”

In Zambia, the Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) organization – along with WWF Zambia, the DNPW government parks agency and the nearby Flatdogs Camp resort – has, since 2007 turned the strategy into a small agricultural industry that involves more than 200 people. The Kakumbi community members sell their peppers to CSL, which in turn sells them to Lusaka-based Rivonia Farm Products, a company that bottles hot pepper sauce. 

Other natural strategies have grown from African farmers’ own observations – elephants avoid bees, for example, and Save the Elephants, a Kenya-based charity, discovered that beehive fences could both deter elephants and provide a source of revenue for local farmers. The AWF also uses this bee strategy at Murchison Falls.


The Pepper Company: Our Story. Connected Conservation.

Chili peppers are helping Uganda’s elephants and farmers peacefully coexist.

Pepper changes elephants’ ‘bad behavior’. CNN.

Hot chilies keep elephants at bay. Time.

These Zambians hunt elephants with chili peppers. Sustainability Times.