Saving Elephants With Chili Powder–Filled Condoms and Firecrackers
It all sounds like typical internet hype, but Damian Bell, executive director of the Tanzania-based conservation group Honeyguide, believes his team has found a low-cost, low-tech way to keep elephants from wandering into agricultural fields and encountering deadly confrontations with farmers.
The key? A chili powder–packed condom topped with a firecracker.
When the device is lit and thrown in the vicinity of a wayward elephant, the result is an explosion of light, noise, and smells that causes the animal to flee the scene startled but unharmed, according to Bell.
“I think that anywhere that has conflicts with elephants, strategies will have to be innovative and dynamic and that the overarching approach should be one of trying to train the elephants to stay off farms,” he said.
Over the last two years, Honeyguide has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to test chili bombs in villages along the boundaries of Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. Previously, the villagers’ options for getting a 10-ton animal out of their fields usually ended in spear throwing—a potentially deadly deterrent.
Now more than 60 volunteer groups—called “crop protection teams”—have been assembled across Northern Tanzania and outfitted with elephant alarm kits, a four-step system used in sequential order when an elephant is spotted near farmland.
The first deterrent is a flashlight with a strobe setting; sometimes that alone is enough to ward off a curious elephant. If not, then an air horn can be used. The third step is the chili-filled condom. The final option is to light a Roman candle—the bright lights and explosions typically do the trick.
Bell said the tool kit is really a means of training the elephants.
“When we started working on nonviolent ways to ward off animals, everyone started warning us that we should be aware that elephants are very intelligent,” he said—and that the mammals would most likely figure out ways around the nonlethal deterrents.
That has been the case in the past. Chili has been tried as an elephant deterrent in many other regions. Farmers have lined their fields with chili-covered ropes to keep the animals out, with varying degrees of success. (One elephant can eat up to 900 pounds of crops per day.)
The kit is designed to tap the elephants’ intelligence for the benefit of the farmers.
“The main aim is to train the elephants that when they see the flashlight, they know that they have entered an area that has more tools to come, and the flashlight is only the first warning signal,” Bell said. “We hope that over time the flashlight might be the only tool that is used.”
In their tests over the past year, the teams have reported that the flashlight deters elephants 60 percent of the time, and the chili cloud has been successful 90 percent of the time.
“The last tool in the tool kit is the Roman candle,” Bell said, “and out of the 290 recorded incidents this season, we have only used the Roman candle nine times, and it has been 100 percent successful.”
Matthew Brown, African region conservation director for The Nature Conservancy, said getting the communities to use the tool kits instead of spears has been key to the program’s success.
“In some more remote areas, it’s harder to see the benefit in an animal that can come in and destroy your livelihood in one night,” Brown said. “It’s really about educating these communities on the value of elephants to the tourism industry in their countries and the benefits they bring.”