Christmas Appeal: Simple shot with ping-pong ball is an elephant’s best friend


Kaya Burgess, The Times

Date Published
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Spears, rifles and poison are often the weapons of choice for farmers across Africa trying to defend their land from marauding lions and elephants, but ping pong balls, beehives and paintbrushes can all make better deterrents.

While few of Africa’s endangered species are susceptible to Covid-19 they have been dying in increasing numbers during a pandemic that has piled economic pressures onto local communities.

Poaching and hunting remain grave problems, but a growing threat has come from those who kill not for profit, food or sport, but simply to defend their livelihoods. As human populations expand, so does the demand for farmland, often encroaching into the habitats of wild animals. 

A farmer can ill afford to lose cattle to lion attacks and crops to elephant raids, the more so now the pandemic has decimated tourism, jobs and incomes across Africa. It makes farmers even keener to fight back, often with deadly force.

But Tusk, one of the charities supported by this year’s Times and Sunday Times Christmas appeal, protects more than 40 endangered species by finding innovative ways to reduce conflict between humans and animals.

With Tusk’s support, farmers and herders are discovering that you do not have to kill your wild neighbours if you can find ingenious and unusual ways of scaring them away unharmed.

Tusk provides funding and support to local conservation groups in 20 African countries. All donations to Tusk through the Times appeal up to £150,000 will be doubled by the Nick Maughan Foundation, run by the British businessman and philanthropist.

Protecting Wildlife across Africa


Armed with a home-made gun built from two lengths of pipe and a welder’s gas lighter, Jebson Tembo, 57, patrols the outskirts of a village on the lookout for elephants who have come to eat crops.

One raid from a trampling elephant with a taste for maize or mangos can destroy a farmer’s entire harvest and leave their family destitute.

When Mr Tembo sees an elephant, he takes aim, triggers the igniter and an explosive crack rings out.

What comes flying out is not a bullet, however, but a ping-pong ball. Using a syringe, Mr Tembo has filled the ball with a mixture of ground chilli, oil and petrol. The ball is placed in the device along with a squirt of flammable insecticide. The chamber is quickly closed and the gas lighter ignited, sending the ball shooting out.

It causes little pain when it strikes the elephant’s thick hide. The ball disintegrates and the petrol evaporates, leaving a film of chilli oil on the animal’s skin.

One sniff of the pungent chilli soon sends the elephant hurrying away unharmed, with a tickle in its trunk rather than a bullet in its brain.

“These elephants had been killed for a long time but now people are learning to live with them,” Mr Tembo told The Times. One colleague says that farmers who lost their whole harvest last year have this year been able to harvest three or four bags of maize.

The “chilli bombers” are built at a cost of about £50 by the Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) group in Zambia, which has 23 people on patrol duty. Mr Tembo works for the group’s “human-wildlife conflict” team and trains the farmers to use their devices.

Tusk helps  to fund CSL’s operating costs, anti-poaching teams, aerial surveillance units and veterinary work.


Elephants in children’s films are always terrified of mice but in reality it turns out that bees are their greatest fear.

Taking an idea developed by Save the Elephants, the Tsavo Trust in Kenya, with support from Tusk, strings wooden crate-style beehives on wires around the edge of farmers’ crops on the Kamungi Conservancy in the Tsavo East National Park, southern Kenya.

The buzzing alone is usually enough to scare away invading elephants but if they disturb the “beehive fence”, bees fly out and sting the soft skin around their ears. It causes only mild discomfort but sends them running, leaving the crops — and the elephant — unharmed. As a bonus, the farmers can harvest and sell honey from the hives.

Muuli Wambua, 41, above, who has hives around her maize crops, said: “Before the beehive fences life was horrible. The elephants would come and trample your farm and destroy everything but now I’ve seen real changes.”

Richard Moller, director of the Tsavo Trust, said: “Tusk’s support is vital, especially in a year like this, to keep the cogs turning . . . They also support some of our anti-poaching teams and help us through their Wildlife Ranger Challenge fund.”


Lions often use ambush-style tactics to hunt cattle, creeping up on an unsuspecting herd from behind. If the cows spot them, the lions tend to retreat.

In nature, some species of bird, fish, butterfly and reptile have evolved “eye spots” — markings on their bodies that resemble eyes and fool predators into thinking they are being watched.

The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT), also supported by Tusk, has taken to painting large eyes on the backsides of cattle either side of their tail using stencils, lovingly describing them as “scary-ass cows”.

“It has made a statistically significant difference,” said John McNutt, director of the BPCT, who said some herders could lose up to 100 cattle in just six months, with many lions killed every year in retaliation. “We’ve had no cattle taken by lions during our experiment.”

The BPCT has also seen attacks by humans on wild or “painted” dogs who raid villages in search of food. Its team finds patches of urine or faeces deposited by dogs to mark their territory and moves the marked sand, leaves or grass to surround the village, forming an olfactory border that the dogs will not cross.

They even have a laboratory working to create synthetic scents, developing an artificial smell that has been shown to stop leopards in their tracks.

Tusk funds the BPCT’s conflict reduction schemes and its Coaching Conservation education programme, which uses sport to teach young people about the need to protect wild animals.

As Tusk explains: “Finding space for both people and wildlife to co-exist is the ultimate conservation challenge.”

Appeal Off to Flyer

The generosity of readers has got the Times and Sunday Times Christmas appeal off to a flying start.

Launched last Friday afternoon, the appeal had raised more than £460,000 by Wednesday afternoon. Readers have donated more than £230,000 so far, with £136,000 donated to FareShare, £56,000 to Sported and £42,000 to Tusk.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Michael Moritz are doubling every pound donated to FareShare, while the Nick Maughan Foundation is doubling donations to Tusk up to £150,000.

This match-funding and estimated Gift Aid, which allows charities to reclaim tax on your donations, takes the total raised so far past £460,000.