Farmers lead the way to reduce elephant crop raiding in Tanzania


Sue Palminteri, Monga Bay

Date Published


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As human settlements convert increasingly more natural vegetation to farms and occupy traditional wildlife migration routes, people and wild animals come into more frequent contact, and much of this interaction is negative. In Africa, when wild animals, especially large, dangerous species like lions or elephants, disperse from protected areas and raid livestock corrals or crop fields, they can devastate subsistence farmers, who may retaliate by killing the next unlucky lion or elephant passing by (Osborn & Parker 2002, Parker et al. 2007).

Research provides increasing evidence that non-lethal means may be more effective at reducing livestock predation than lethal methods; we are presenting a series of posts that highlight such techniques and technologies used to reduce human-wildlife conflict (HWC).

Wildtech spoke with Alex Chang’a, field director of RESOLVE’s Elephant-Chili project in northern Tanzania.  Chang’a has worked with farming communities outside some of the country’s famous national parks, including Tarangire and Mikumi, to test and promote the installment of chili fences around crops and financial support for building and maintaining them. As we discussed in this series’ first post on the use of chili to reduce human-elephant conflict (HEC), elephants have super sensitive noses and dislike the smell of chili, so these fences consist of ropes and pieces of cloth coated with a mixture of ground chili and engine oil.

We’ve summarized Chang’a’s suggestions for seven ways to improve chili fences to keep elephants out of crop fields:

Encourage community leadership and involve the community, physically and financially, in protecting its resources

The Elephant-Chili (Tembo-Pilipili in Kiswahili) project in Tanzania emphasizes sustainable, community-driven mitigation of HEC.

“The project involves a high level of community participation and project ownership, aiming to encourage the community to become responsible for HEC mitigation,” said Chang’a. “The communities are trained in making, erecting and maintaining the chili fences; growing chili; financing chili fences and linking to the government, conservation NGOs, developmental NGOs and [the] private sector.”

For example, Chang’a and colleagues stress in their chili fence manual that farmer groups must walk chili fences daily, refresh the chili oil regularly, especially after rain, and fix any fence breaks created by livestock, branches, or elephants.

Enable farmers to educate one another and build trust in the method

Chang’a and colleagues in Tanzania enable and encourage farmer-to-farmer information exchanges, in which “tembo-pilipili teams” comprising local farmers who have fenced their farms with chili mixtures explain and demonstrate their methods to farmers in nearby communities. These exchanges have introduced the chili fence concept rapidly and cost-effectively to new communities in HEC hotspots (Chang’a et al. 2016).

“The farmers on the elephant-chili teams have benefitted from the project and trust the technique, [which] helps to convince new farmers to participate in the project. Communities are trained in activities that can support HEC mitigation and improve the subsistence farmers’ income, including growing chili for HEC reduction and selling surplus chili,” explained Chang’a.

The teams build demonstration fences and make follow-up visits to each village to explain fence maintenance and the running of related community-based funding organizations.

“After a demonstration and training, we follow up with and encourage farmers to continue with the project. This could be by phone or an annual visit,” added Chang’a. “We are doing core activities which can help farmers protect their crops against elephant raiding, [and] we have not invested in technical activities that are unlikely to continue when a donor exits from the project.”

Work beyond the farm

The project also works with farmers offsite, encouraging them to pool their resources into community-based organizations (CBOs) to help them obtain credit or funding and allow them to assign someone to maintain the fences.

The elephant-chili team members help fellow farmers set up and run these CBOs, which allow individual farmers to join together to generate greater influence at the market. Additionally, CBOs provide access to government funding schemes and village savings-and-loans (VSLs) to help farmers purchase materials and compensate them in case of loss.

“These CBOs are recognized by government, and members can speak in community meetings about chili fences,” said Chang’a.

Nationally-registered CBOs can also serve to organize village communities, which helps them network with potentially useful organizations and government institutions. Many entities, such as local government, central government, NGOs, business people, banks and other micro-finance organizations, find it easier to work with registered CBOs. What’s more, CBO members can improve farming efficiency, such as by selecting one person to maintain chili fences for the group.

To help poor farmers purchase fencing materials, the project integrates a Village Savings and Loans (VSL) micro-credit system, which lets members of a self-selected group purchase shares in a voluntary VSL Association. The group invests these savings in a loan fund from which members can borrow, repaying with an added service charge. This small-scale, community-managed fund earns interest, providing the community with extra money to compensate members who suffer from HEC. The community can demonstrate its commitment to the scheme through its savings, which, together with the CBO, encourages external agencies to provide top-up donations through matching grants or other contributions.

“Farmers themselves do demonstrations on chili fences, CBO formation and the VSL program,” added Chang’a. “New communities see that the scheme can work for people with the same level of education and livelihood.”

Involve local authorities in demonstrations and trainings to lend authority to the project

According to Chang’a, “The community uptake and ownership of the project is improved by engaging and involving wildlife managers. The government is responsible for wildlife management, so if the government approves and supports the project, there is a high probability of a community accepting the project.”

The elephant-chili project ensures the presence of government wildlife experts and local officials, typically the District Game Officer (DGO), at a village’s introductory demonstration and training, to indicate government approval of the program.

“Prior to the visit, we inform the government leadership, wildlife technical staff in that area—which includes the DGO and TANAPA (Tanzania’s National Protected Area Authority) Outreach officer of that area—and members of the community where HEC is a problem. Then we conduct the community meeting. After introductory training, if farmers accept the project, we conduct intensive training for selected farmers who will form the tembo-pilipili team and become trainers in that village.”

“The community would like the government who own and benefit from wildlife conservation to be responsible in HEC mitigation,” he continued. “However, the government is not able to support every member of the community seeking help when elephants enter crop fields because of shortage of resources. We are trying to create a partnership between the government and community in HEC mitigation.”

Keep costs really low

Settlements that block migratory routes and deplete critical wildlife habitat are typically the work of very poor farmers with few options to earn even a meager income.

As Chang’a made clear, “Some members of the community do not use chili fence[s] because of the costs associated with materials, the work load of erecting fence[s] and the cost of [periodically] reapplying the chili.

Supporting a community participating in mitigation of HEC and wildlife conservation with materials, such as sisal rope, can improve the project.”

“The project should address poverty among farmers co-existing with wildlife; [this could include] supporting agricultural activities that do not affect wildlife conservation and designing alternatives to crop farming, such as the introduction of small-scale chicken farming,” he added.

Some farmers grow chili around the borders of crops, which produces a chili plant smell and supplies chilies for sale or fencing.

Nevertheless, in areas such as northern Tanzania, said Chang’a, “Although we advocate low-cost HEC mitigation techniques, we should bear in mind that for the rural subsistence farmers, [it] could be very difficult to financially afford it.”

Share income from wildlife with the (often poor) people dealing with its challenges

Chang’a noted that “the impacts from wildlife conservation are not shared by all citizen[s] or people globally, [in that the] negative effect is left to people living in wildlife rich area[s], while wildlife belong[s] to all, providing ecosystem services. Income generated from wildlife contributes to government budget, and very little is directed to the community or household level; it is very difficult to convince people to value wildlife and live harmoniously with wildlife if there is no economic benefit.”

Chang’a stressed that he and his team advocate “low-cost HEC mitigation techniques, [as] we must bear in mind that it could be very difficult for rural subsistence farmers to financially afford [even chili fencing].”

To fence a 0.4-hectare (1 acre) crop field, a farmer needs 2.5 kg of ground chili, which is mixed with 10 liters of used engine oil onto 32 large pieces of mutton cloth, 5 kg of sisal rope, and 36 wooden poles each roughly 3 m long. Materials to fence a hectare of crops cost roughly $35 in 2015 ($14 per acre), though recurring costs can be reduced by recycling fence poles, cloths, and ropes over several harvest seasons (Chang’a et al. 2016).

The project has developed and provided a step-by-step chili fence manual with detailed instructions on all aspects of the project’s activities: these can also be found in its published paper.

“This approach has led to the community accepting the project because the project has increased food security and income and decreased elephant injuries and mortality,” said Chang’a. “Wildlife projects are [rarely] accepted by the community because income from conservation does not benefit households in most cases.”

As an added bonus, he noted, “The relationship between community and wildlife authorities has also improved [so that] the wildlife authority can share information on wildlife conservation, including poaching, with the community.”

Grow chilies both for fencing and as a commercial venture

Agriculture in northern Tanzania is challenging. Tanzania’s elephant-chili teams around Mikumi National Park sell chili to both markets and neighboring communities to use for fencing.  The scheme is cost-effective because chili can be grown on their farms, and elephants will not raid chili crops. Moreover, farmers relish the opportunity to sell surplus chili to generate income.

This strategy, used by the Elephant Pepper project in southern Africa as well, also takes training.  According to Chang’a, “Tembo-pilipili teams are trained [and subsequently train their colleagues] in chili farming, processing, marketing and linking CBOs to potential supporters (government and NGOs)” needed to help cover costs of chili storage areas, grinders and marketing.

Chang’a’s team in Tanzania found that chili fences effectively deterred elephants from crop raiding on individual farms in pilot communities and that farmers continued to use chili fences for HEC mitigation even after the project moved to new communities. The CBOs and associated VSLs have independently supported chili fence use over several years.

Disclaimer: RESOLVE, one of the Wildtech-Mongabay partners, now leads the Tanzania Tembo-Pilipili project.