Chilli fences

Author Chris McIntyre explains how researchers have attempted to bridge the conflict between conservation and community.

Written by Chris McIntyre


One of the greatest problems facing the successful operation of a national park is managing the conflict between conservation and community. Kasanka is no exception: with a small elephant population in an unfenced park, and a considerable number of arable farms in the vicinity, problems are almost inevitable. Villagers understandably object to elephants trampling their valuable maize and cassava crops, but keeping the animals at bay is rarely straightforward.

In 2000, two researchers in Zimbabwe came up with a simple idea: chilli fences. The aim was to create a barrier that would repel the elephants without resorting to costly and often ineffective barricades or electric fencing. In 1997, Guy Parker and Loki Osborn in Zimbabwe set up the Chilli Pepper Development Project, based on the premise that elephants have a strong aversion to the smell of chillies. Using cheap, easily available materials, they created a fence made of wooden posts linked by sisal rope and hung with strips of mutton cloth that had been doused in used engine oil and chillies. Their results were impressive.

Taking their research as a base, Victoria Paterson, a research student from Glasgow University, spent much of 2007 at Kasanka studying the potential of chilli fences for the villages around the national park. With a focus across five sites, she set up a series of fences, with control experiments to check the efficacy of the combination of materials, and worked with local farmers to explain the methods. Despite considerable resistance, some of the farmers have taken the suggestions on board, with very positive results for their crops. The next stage is to ascertain how long the protective fences will work, assuming that eventually the elephants will overcome their dislike of the chillies. One method of reinforcing the fences is to create a buffer zone between the precious maize crop and the elephant’s forest habitat, by growing a secondary crop around it. The European potato, for example, doesn’t find favour with elephants, so sowing this between the forest and the maize may be sufficient to persuade the elephant to look elsewhere rather than wading through a field of unappealing fare.

While persuading people to try out new ideas can be an uphill struggle in itself, it’s important that putting these ideas into practice should be affordable. With this in mind, villagers have been encouraged to use fibre for rope, and to grow chillies as one of their crops. Here, water is a huge factor, but if the chillies are grown alongside another, profitable crop that requires irrigation, such as rape, then a successful outcome is more likely. Now, though, the elephants – thwarted of their free meal – have taken to heading for village grain stores, and so the cycle continues.

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