The Eastern Province of Zambia abounds in pristine wilderness with sweeping savannahs dotted with magnificent baobab trees. Here charismatic wildlife—elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras, antelopes, lions, leopards, and others—roam freely in the many vast national parks.
The Eastern Province is also home to smallholder farmers who live in thatched cottages and sometimes struggle to produce enough to feed their families. As human populations expand and natural habitats shrink, people and animals in this region have increasingly come into conflict over living space and food.
Of all the animals, elephants cause the most destruction to crops because of their size and their stubborn nature—the other animals can be scared away with loud noises, but it takes more to deter an elephant. Travelling in packs of 10 to 15, elephants that leave the designated parks and wander into areas where people reside can devour a small farming plot of maize, beans or other subsistence crops in an evening.
“Elephants mostly go into farmers’ fields by accident in search of food. When they enter the crop fields, they think they are enjoying fresh grass without realizing these are crops,” says Malama Njovu, Community Liaison Assistant for Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW).
When efforts to scare off the elephants with loud noises don’t work, some farmers have resorted to spearing, snaring or poisoning the elephants, with obvious negative impacts on wildlife conservation.
To tackle this problem, Zambia’s Integrated Forest Landscape Project (ZIFLP), funded by the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes,* has teamed up with DNPW to help communities better manage human-wildlife conflicts. The overall aim of the ZIFLP is to reduce deforestation, promote sustainable agricultural practices, and improve rural livelihoods, while protecting natural resources. And since farmers’ crops are directly linked to their livelihood improvements,
Ever heard of a chili fence?
In the Kazembe Chiefdom in Zambia’s Eastern Province, DNPW is working with local farmers to construct fences around their crops laced with chili peppers—for the simple reason that elephants have sensitive noses and are repelled by the chili’s strong smell.
Once farmers have dug holes and erected poles around their crops, they simply need to string rope between the poles and attach pieces of mutton cloth that have been smeared with a mixture of ground chilis and grease.
“Once an elephant touches the cloth smeared with chili paste, the chili enters the elephant’s pores and starts to itch. This further dissuades the elephant from entering the field,” says Malama of DNPW. Beyond a bit of itchy discomfort, he insists chili fences don’t hurt elephants and are safer than electrical fences.
The team is also showing farmers how to make and use chili bricks to keep elephant herds away. Farmers mix elephant dung with chilis to make a brick. Once the brick is dry, they burn it to create a hot chili smoke that elephants can smell from a distance. The bricks are burned down wind in the direction of the elephants’ path, so villagers are spared from the strong fumes.
So far, the initiative has trained 100 farmers in the Kazembe and Chitungulu chiefdoms about these chili solutions. The plan is to reach 2,000 farmers in these chiefdoms in the coming years.
“Chilies are relatives easy to grow and there's a big demand for them since they are used often in Zambian cooking. So farmers are really excited to integrate this new crop,” says Malama.