Chillis prompt elephants to cool their heels

Elephants and humans have long found themselves at loggerheads in Africa, and Malawi is no exception to this trend.

Communities in the southern Machinga and Balaka districts near Liwonde National Park have seen their crops destroyed by elephants, while some people have been trampled to death. This led to the construction of a perimeter fence around the 538 square kilometre park in the early 1990s.

However, a number of people complained that the fence prevented them from gathering wood and water in Liwonde, as they had previously done.

Poachers who were trapping game and fish in the reserve also took exception to the new barrier, and the fence was vandalised. Ironically, the fence wire was used to make snares for catching animals.

A few years later, the stance of communities surrounding the park appears to have softened, and they have joined forces with the government to build a new solar-powered fence. But, villagers are also exploring a more innovative way of keeping the elephants at bay: the planting of chilli pepper plants.

Speaking from Liwonde National Park, Mathias Elisa — a Parks and Wildlife Department official who is responsible for education — said: “Observations conducted during chilli production revealed that elephants keep diverting from areas where the … production is being done.”

“Elephants hate the smell of chilli, especially when the stems have been burnt. It appears they … distance themselves from where the chilli is growing,” he added.

The Partnership in Sustainable Natural Resource Management in Malawi, a United States-funded group based in the commercial capital of Blantyre, has selected a number of communities to train in chilli production. This follows similar ventures in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where chillis have proved effective in reducing conflict between humans and wildlife.

The National Smallholder Farmers of Malawi organisation has also provided assistance to villagers by showing them how to space, transplant and harvest chilli plants. In addition, the growers have been given information about grading, storage and marketing.

Once harvested and graded, the chillis are sold to European countries — particularly The Netherlands, Spain and Italy ‒ where they are combined with paprika to make the powder used in pepper sprays.

Records kept by Liwonde National Park show that chili sales for 2002 and 2003 resulted in a profit of $1 500 for adjacent communities, or about $28 per household. According to the United Nations Human Development Report for 2003, almost 42% of Malawi’s population lives below the poverty line of $1 a day.

Other communities near the reserve are now queuing up to join the programme.

“The response has been overwhelming. Right now 13 new [chilli-growing] clubs have been established in … Machinga district,” says Elisa, who coordinates chilli project activities for the wildlife department.

Njahito club, on the eastern side of Liwonde, was the star performer in chilli production last year. Ten women and 19 men from this community have started growing chilis.

Club chairperson Godfrey Mkwate says: “We are happy with the chilli production project. Apart from reaping benefits economically through sales, the problems of elephants destroying our crops and property has also been minimised.”

Park officials hope that the chilli project, in addition to smoothing human-elephant relations, will lessen the demands which locals continue to place on Liwonde’s plant and animal resources. As a result of the demand for wood and other items, the reserve has already been reduced in size by 10 square kilometres to meet the needs of surrounding communities. — IPS

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