Photo: The Nature Conservancy Conservationists are filling condoms with chili powder and firecrackers ... to keep elephants away.
This scare tactic, part of a multistep alarm system, has been developed to protect farmland and villages from elephants, without harming the animals. Honeyguide Foundation, with support from The Nature Conservancy, has been training villagers to use the alarm system, and though unconventional, the chili condoms have already shown promise.
In northern Tanzania, the area around Tarangire National Park where elephants live has seen substantial civilization growth since the park was established in 1970. According to Matthew Brown, Africa region conservation director for The Nature Conservancy, the population density has more than doubled and much of the grasslands surrounding the park are being converted to farmland. [Elephant Images: The Biggest Beasts on Land]
"The issue is [the elephants] leave some of these parks, like Tarangire National Park, and go into these community areas that are farmed," Brown told Live Science. "It's not an ivory issue, it's human-wildlife conflict around a response, because they're raiding the crops."
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Before the program started in October 2013, villagers would use spears to move the elephants out of the crop fields, injuring and potentially killing the animals. Even so, the elephants were damaging up to 70 percent of crops in the area. This led Damian Bell, executive director of Honeyguide, to research alternative options for keeping the elephants away.
Bell had heard that some communities found success with firecrackers, the loud noise scaring the elephants and prompting the animals to move. Communities had also used bright lights - from headlights on a vehicle or flashlights - to push the elephants away.
In addition, for years, farmers have used chilies - planting peppers as a "fence" or dispersing powder - to ward off the elephants. As very few animals like chili, the peppers (or powder) have also been used to keep other animals, like monkeys, from crops.
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"I thought, 'Let's mix these together - let's have a firecracker that's wrapped up in chili. So that when we chuck it at them, there's a bang and there's the smoke,'" Bell told Live Science. "So we started working on the chili bomb, chili cloud kind of thing, and that was working well."
The so-called chili bombs are a mixture of chili powder and soil, packed with a firecracker, into a condom. Brown said in order for the chili bomb to work, it needed to be in a balloon that could expand to the shape of the firecracker and would burst from the firecracker's fuse. Condoms are also readily available at local markets, making for the perfect container.