For the residents of Mutunyi in Buuri, Kenya, local elephants are more of a burden than a gift. After years of losing crops to elephants, the community has begun construction on a 5-foot wide stone wall to prevent the animals from crossing their fields.
Positioned along an elephant migratory path connecting the Mount Kenya Forest to northern Kenya, the path runs through Mutunyi and nearly 200 elephants use its corridor every year. For the farmers and locals, this migratory path destroyed nearly 4 million shillings a year and threatened the community's food security.
Using locally available stones, Pastor Rikita and other residents are constructing a five-foot wide, four-foot tall barrier to bar elephants as they travel across the territory.
"We decided to build the wall after so many years of suffering,” said Rikita. “For the last 10 years, many people have abandoned their farms due to destruction from elephants. From experience, we learned that elephants cannot cross a wall which is five feet wide and higher than their legs.”
The tense relationship between the citizens of Mutunyi and the migratory elephants in the region are not unique to this community; towns and villages across Africa have to grapple with how to protect the species while still preserving their livelihoods. The most successful sanctuaries and conservations across the continent build their protections with these concerns in mind and strive to foster a mutually beneficial relationship between the elephants and the communities surrounding them.
Elephant sanctuaries can be a vital source of income, employment, and tourism if utilized and developed effectively. Finding the balance between animal protection and human livelihoods can determine the longevity and success of a conservation project. If done poorly, locals may turn against the elephants and kill the animals to protect their own crops. However, there are a few steps communities can take to safeguard themselves and their property without resorting to violence against these endangered species.
1. Grow Chili Peppers
Elephants hate chili peppers. They have an extremely negative reaction to the plant’s heat and will often avoid crops that have it intermingled with the more delicious fruits and vegetables. In addition to intermingling the crop with the rest, farmers and community members can also:
Rub chili pepper mixed with engine oil onto twine or string barriers wrapped around fields and gardens. The smell and taste can help scare away elephants
Make a chili-dung bomb. After mixing chili and old elephant dung together and burning the mixture, farmers can create a pungent and spicy smoke cloud that will shoo away elephants (and people!)
2. Take up Beekeeping
The buzzing and threat of bee stings can be enough to frighten away a single elephant or even an entire herd. By maintaining a small beekeeping operation near crops, farmers can protect their livelihoods and have a natural source of sweetness to add to their food and sales.
3. Grow Crops Elephants Don’t Like
If deterring an elephant isn’t an option, another option is to grow plants that elephants won’t raid simply because they don’t like the taste. Ginger, oil seed, tea, cocoa, sisal, and chili will all be safe from elephants and also fetch a high price on the global market. In certain locations and markets, these crops can serve as an elephant-safe alternative.
4. Use Bright Lights
Elephants often raid farms and gardens at night and can leave a field decimated before the field’s caretakers awake. If it’s feasible to do, a system of bright lights that turn on when an elephant approaches can be enough to deter them. The lights must be bright and numerous enough to intimidate the the elephants into fleeing, but, when done correctly, they can serve as an effective way to scare elephants away from vital crops.
5. Make Noise
Elephants are skittish. Just as bright lights can scare them away, so too can loud noises. Though shooting a gun can be enough to frighten an elephant or herd, some countries require this be done only by specifically authorized individuals to ensure the animals aren’t accidentally (or purposefully) harmed. Luckily, there are other techniques that can be just as effective including:
Shouting and yelling together with other members of the community
Banging on drums, tins, cans, and trees
Setting up a noise alarm
6. Combine Crops Together
Outliers foods tend to be easy targets for elephants who are statistically more likely to eat the crops on a single plot of land rather than those from a crowded field. To better protect crops, farmers can pool together their resources and create one larger area for their gardens or fields. Large communal fields with a barrier of thorny bushes or traditional fencing can help protect the communities food supply and other crops.
7. Mark the Territory
Though not territorial creatures, they will smell tree bark for signs of other elephant herds. If they catch the scent of another elephant, they normally won’t mark the territory and will move on. To utilize this tendency to their advantage, farmers can use the urine of other elephants and spray the liquid around the trees surrounding their fields and crops. This natural deterrent might give elephants a signal to move on to other pastures.
8. Put in Electric Fencing
An expensive option, one line of electrified fencing placed a few feet off the ground can be enough to keep elephants at bay for the long-term as they learn to avoid the area and the mild shocks they receive. Due to the cost of continually electrifying the fence, this option can be quite expensive and potentially dangerous to elephants and humans if not properly calibrated, and it should only be used if other, less costly and dangerous options have been exhausted.
Building a Mutually Beneficial Relationship
Ensuring that elephants and local communities can live side by side in peace and security can have substantial benefits for both parties. Elephants draw in tourism dollars that can have a significant impact on the local economy, and by protecting local crops and fields, communities can also protect these endangered animals from falling into extinction. If you’d like to be a part of the fight to protect these elephants, consider joining Stop Poaching Now! Our projects in Africa work directly with communities on the ground to build up the local infrastructure and protect these amazing creatures for generations to come.