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Coping with raiding elephants and hippos

FAO tests toolkit to lessen humans-wildlife conflict

Photo: ©FAO/Edgar Kaeslin
Throwing stones at elephants may drive them off -- but don't try it

19 July 2010, Rome - Are raiding elephants bothering you?  No problem. Drive them off with pepper spray.

Are lion, cheetah or spotted hyena attacking your farm animals? Consider a guard donkey. 

Marauding baboons giving you a hard time? Offer them a snake sandwich.

These are some of the colourful tips contained in a toolkit produced by FAO to help resolve, prevent and mitigate the growing problem of conflict between humans and wild animals. And while the measures suggested may raise a smile, there is nothing light-hearted about the problem they are designed to address.

With the world's population growing at some 75 million a year, humans and wildlife are having to squeeze ever more tightly together, increasing the risk of conflict between them. The result is a growing thereat to people's lives and livelihoods and to their health from animal-borne diseases.

Taung skull

Competition between humans and wildlife goes back to the dawn of humanity. Fossil records show that the first hominids fell prey to the animals with which they shared their habitats. The famous "Taung skull" found in South Africa in 1924 belonged to a child whom scientists say was killed by an eagle two million years ago.

"But now, "says FAO Forestry and Wildlife Officer René Czudek "things may be getting worse, particularly in Africa". The population of the continent, which has the world's largest reserves of wildlife, is set to double from one to two billion in the next 40 years. Africans will not only be packing more tightly into the cities - they and their crops will also be increasingly pressing up against territory populated by wildlife.  

FAO's Human-Wildlife Conflict mitigation toolkit thus largely focuses on problem-solving in Africa. It is designed not only to help protect people, their livestock and their crops from animals but, just as important, to safeguard animals from people. It suggests policies, strategies and practical tips to make increasingly tight cohabitation safer for everyone.

Number one problem

According to the Southern African Development Community's (SADC's) Technical Committee on Wildlife, wild animals represent the number one problem for Africa's rural populations both in terms of personal security and because of the economic damage they can cause.  

No global figures are available on crop losses but, says Czudek, "to the family concerned the loss of a patch of maize to raiding elephants can mean the loss of their food supply for a year, the difference between self-sufficiency and being destitute".

Elephants often like to feed on field crops, especially maize and cassava.  It has been estimated that the annual cost of elephant raids to crops ranges from $60 (Uganda) to $510 (Cameroon) per affected farmer.

Chasing a full-grown bull elephant off one's property is obviously sooner said than done but luckily all elephants have a chink in their armour - they hate chilli pepper.

Mhiripiri Bomber

Exploiting this Achille's heel is the trademarked "Mhiripiri Bomber", a plastic gun which fires ping-pong balls containing a highly concentrated chilli solution that bursts over an elephant's skin on impact. It will send a bull elephant running for cover at over 50 yards.

Also effective is making chilli bricks out of elephant dung and ground pepper, positioning them around the edges of endangered fields and igniting them. The thick, peppery fumes keep elephants away. Whole fields of chillies may also be planted and grown, keeping elephants away and yielding profits too.

As general strategy the toolkit in fact emphasizes conflict prevention through advance land- use planning -- ensuring for example that crops are planted where they are less accessible to problem animals.  Corridors should be provided for wildlife to go to and from water and where possible hard contact should be avoided with riverine and hill-edge vegetation. 

Nile crocodiles

But where humans and wild animals share the same spaces, danger cannot be entirely eliminated. Currently, indications are that the biggest threats to humans from predators are the large Nile crocodiles which can weigh up to 1000 kg.  Reports from Zambia and Mozambique suggest that they are responsible for the greatest number of animal-caused deaths in those countries, with an estimated 300 annual fatalities in Mozambique alone.

Strong fencing can afford protection against crocs at watering points. At the same time it should be noted that crocodiles are less likely to attack humans or livestock in places where abundant fish stocks remain. Avoiding over-fishing would thus be one way of reducing the danger they pose. 

Hippos, which, like elephants, are fond of raiding crops by night, may be deterred by shining a strong light in their eyes.  But, the toolkit warns, caution should be exercised because they are unpredictable and may charge instead of running off. 

Guard donkeys

Investing in a guard dog is a good way to warn of the approach of predators and keep them away. In some parts of Kenya donkeys are used instead of dogs. They are fearless and can drive even large carnivores away by braying, biting and kicking.

Against baboons, one deterrent is a snake in a loaf of bread. Baboons which enter buildings to steal food may be scared off by placing a snake, preferably alive, inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread. When they grab the bread and find the snake inside, they get such a fright they take good care not to return. 

Generally speaking, however, the best way to reduce the problems which humans face from wildlife, and vice versa,  is to educate farmers and villagers - and also policy makers -- to perceive wild animals as an asset rather than as a threat to be eliminated. Awareness and training in how people can live better  alongside wild animals  are fundamental to the use of Human-Wildlife Conflict tools and in building local capacity for conflict prevention and resolution.     

But obviously villagers will only stop seeing wild animals as a nuisance or worse if rural communities receive some tangible advantage from living cheek by jowl with animal populations.

Paying them a percentage of the revenue derived from tourism would be one way, while payments for the environmental services they provide is another. Compensation for damage to crops, injury or loss of life should also be considered.

Tragic loss

"Whatever the specific measures taken, it is important that they are introduced soon, and properly implemented" says Czudek. "The alternative could be the progressive loss of wildlife as we know it across much of Africa - representing a tragic loss to us all". 

The Human-Wildlife Conflict Toolkit, currently being tested in southern Africa, was prepared in collaboration with CIRAD (Agricultural Research for Development Centre), WWF (World Wildlife Fund, CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) and other partners.