[BLANTYRE, MALAWI] Malawian conservationists have stopped elephants leaving the Liwonde National Park and trampling nearby crops — by cultivating chilli pepper plants around the park's boundary.
The findings confirm reports from other African countries that planting chillies can stop marauding elephants, which are repulsed by the plant's odour. They also demonstrate that the strategy can ease the tension that frequently arises between local development needs and conservation objectives.
In recent years, wildlife officials at the 538-square-kilometre park have been deluged with complaints that elephants have damaged nearby crops. People have also been trampled to death by stampeding elephants
In the mid-1980s, the authorities decided to build a fence around the park to address the problem. But local communities complained that this prevented them from collecting wood and water from the Shire River, Malawi 's biggest and longest river, which runs through the park. The fence was later vandalised, and the wire used to snare animals in the park.
The new strategy of planting chillies to deter elephants overcomes these problems, according to Mathias Elisa, a parks and wildlife department official based at Liwonde.
Routine observations reveal that elephants distance themselves from all the areas where chillies are grown, he says. "It has also been observed that elephants hate the smell after the chilli stems have been burnt. This has reduced damage to crops, property and threats to the people's lives."
There has already been a significant decline in the number of complaints from local people as a result of the application of this technique. "At this time of the year the complaints from surrounding communities were [previously] enormous," Elisa adds. "Game rangers had to be deployed to push elephants back inside the park. This is not the case now."
In addition, local people are likely to benefit financially from the initiative by selling the chillies grown at the park's edge, says Elisa.
"We expect the number of [individuals growing chillies around the park] to skyrocket after this growing season as the benefits from the exercise become conspicuous," says Elisa.
Gervaz Thamala, manager of the park says he is confident that, in addition to smoothing human-elephant relations, the chilli project will reduce the demands and pressure that communities continue to place on the park's plants and animals.