Elephants and humans clash when it comes to competing for space. And it’s no joke in the poorer farming communities in the Luangwa valley of Zambia. Community Markets for Conservation, (COMACO) recently updated me on their elephant deterrent program. It actually involves reformed poachers, and no dead people or animals.
Elephants and the COMACO reformed poacher program in Zambia
Part of COMACO’s projects involves turning poachers who hand in their guns into more productive members of their community. In the first week of May, I reported that through their efforts, “local people who previously mismanaged the land and clashed with wild animals changed their ways.” They learn via COMACO'’s Farm Talk Radio program, training, funding, and outreach programs to earn money and feed their families. “Nearly two thousand of those farmers, who learn to farm in a sustainable way, previously made a living through poaching.”
Now, one sector of their poaching program involves a group trained to work with wildlife authorities as chili blasters. Communications Manager, Musolé Kambinda points out these “former poachers help to ward off elephants from raiding fields and crop storage from nearby villages.” Elaborating a bit further, Musole explains they use their old hunting weapons to do it. However, “in place of bullets, they blast chili in the direction of the elephants to keep them away for weeks at a time.” Good results included a reduction in “human-animal conflict.” Additionally, “it’s resulted in increased harvests and better food security.”
Chili’s been used for years in the conservation sector to deter elephants
COMACO in the Luangwa’s not the first to use chili as an elephant deterrent. After all, in 2014, CNN reported that the Elephant Pepper Dev Trust burned chili in Zambia to ward off elephants. The South African-based organization “teaches farmers to make rope fences smeared with waste engine oil.” To that, they add “red chili, and it’s mounted with cowbells, to deter elephants.”
Plus, India’s used the technique of planting chili around their fields for some years, as well. Elsewhere, people burn briquettes made from a mixture of dung and chili to chase them away. Capsaicin, the chemical in chili irritates the elephants but does not harm them. It’s hot, makes them cough, and sneeze and they get an urgent desire to go elsewhere.
Shooting chili powder rather than bullets help conserve elephants and save crops in the Luangwa
As chili became a fairly common method to deter elephants, why not let the old poachers keep their guns and help conserve elephants in the Luangwa? After all, they possess the skills necessary to survive elephant encounters. Plus, some community status comes with the job. William Banda has a ten-year background on the program and helped develop it. He bases out of Mfuwe, Zambia.
He explains that these reformed poachers don’t receive payment for their efforts. “The reformed poachers are not paid for doing such wonderful work, they are doing it voluntarily,” he said. It came about through William’s efforts as he “convened meetings with his loyal highnesses (Chiefs) the cooperatives, and the chief’s councils.” It seems they settled for “contributing some crops after they harvest at least 18kg per farmer in each chiefdom. That helps to support the good work the blasters do in their chiefdoms.”
COMACO’s blasters, ballistics, elephant, and how it works
Imagining they use some shotgun cartridges packed with chili powder, I was way off the mark, so William explained how it works. “Blasting is done using muzzleloading guns,” he said. First, they “load gun powder in the gun and then roll the chili powder on the paper and squeeze it in the muzzleloading gun.” Now comes the bit where the poachers’ experience comes in, as they need to get about “50 meters from the elephant.”
As the gun fires, the chili infested paper flies for about 50 meters. “Given the high velocity and the air opposition, the paper unravels, and this allows the chili to saturate the area.” Now chili up your nose is bad enough, but imagine a trunk full of the hot stuff. So, no they don’t blast willy-nilly at all the elephants in a herd. They concentrate on one – the main matriarch – the big boss female. Surely recalling her uncomfortable encounter, she’s less likely to lead the elephant herd back to that area for some time.
Where the elephant project works and chili sources in the Luanga
In order to maintain a constant supply of chili, COMACO, through their It'’s Wild! produce and sustainable farming project, introduced chili farming in the Chitungulu and Chikwa areas. The chili is distributed to a total of 99 former poachers who operate in smaller groups of around eight to 24 people. These include Chifunda, Chitungulu, Mapamba, Kazembe, Zokwe, and Chikwa.
Asking William if they had any tangible results, it turns out COMACO has very positive outcomes. COMACO “began the operation back in 2012,” he notes and we saw “considerable reduction on crop raiding by elephants.” Not only that, but they saw a “reduced number of elephants killed during crop protection.” In fact, he says the reduction’s actually “massive,” adding that in the past two seasons, “no elephant deaths occurred as a result of that protection.”
What do you think of the elephant deterrent update from COMACO’s reformed poachers’ project? It works in the Luangwa, Zambia, could it work elsewhere? Sound off your thoughts in the comments below.
To learn more about COMACO, visit their website www.itswild.org. You can also reach their Communications Manager, Musolé Kambinda by emailing [email protected]