Chillies and oranges can almost certainly be combined into an enticing recipe designed to please the most jaded palate, but some elephants are learning that a chilli and orange combination is not a pleasurable addition to their menu.By Melissa WrayIn Greater Kruger
New research involving chilli extract is underway to try and find a natural way of keeping elephants away from certain things that both people and elephants value. Elephant researchers Drs Michelle and Steve Henley have joined forces with vet Dr Glynn Catton in an attempt to discover just how much elephants hate concentrated chilli pepper extract.
Anyone who has ever cooked with chillies knows just how much the oils in the potent red vegetable can burn skin, eyes, nose and mouth, but it is difficult to imagine how repulsive concentrated chillies would be if one were in possession of a long trunk and a highly advanced smelling system. The research team is using various dilutions of a commercially available chilli extract to find out how much chilli elephants find intolerable.
If they can discover a suitable concentration in a long-lasting formulation, it may become possible to paint an oil or water-based product onto some of the things that people want to protect from elephants, such as certain magnificent trees, trees that rare birds nest in, water pipes, taps and anything else that people value and elephants like to tinker with. With both elephants and humans increasing in numbers and being forced to share the same space, human-elephant conflict is on the increase, especially in southern Africa.
The researchers believe that by finding a simple but effective method to reduce elephant impacts on those things that people hold dear, they will help elephants and people co-exist in a more tolerant atmosphere. To this end they are using three test groups of elephants that are already in a collaborative atmosphere with people, and have been semi-habituated.
These elephants will be used in controlled field trials, and exposed to some food that they particularly like but that has been treated with various concentrations of chilli extract dissolved in oil or water.
Initially, trials were carried out with mealies and chillies, but the semi-tame elephants weren't used to the mealies as a food source, and this affected their behaviour towards the experimental offerings. Mealies were then replaced with oranges, which the elephants regard as a treat.
According to Michelle Henley, the first trials with the elephants have shown that the wisdom of age seems to prevail over untried youth when it comes to avoiding chilli-coated oranges. The first set of untreated oranges was gobbled up by all the elephants.
However, after experiencing the tongue-tingling chillies, the older elephants avoided those oranges with chilli coating when given a choice of treated or un-treated oranges. Given a further set of oranges that were all treated with different concentrations of chilli, one older female smelt all the oranges but didn't touch any of them, while some others ate those with the lowest concentration of chilli. One young male, however, seemed determined to eat every single orange, despite being "clearly discomfited" by the chillies.
Michelle reports that he trumpeted, his temporal glands were streaming and he even tried putting mud on his tongue to soothe it, but he still went on eating all the experimental ranges, one after the other. The research will continue with more semi-habituated elephants, which will help show if the one young lad was simply less sensitive than the average seven-year-old elephant or the norm for his age group, and what concentrations of chilli will keep elephants at bay.
Further tests are planned which will verify how long the chilli extract can survive in the environment and still be a deterrent to the elephants, and how far elephants will go to get to a prime food source when confronted with a chilli-impregnated rope. When a suitable chilli mix has been found, it will be applied to trees in a nature reserve in various combinations with wire netting. The research team is hoping to run fairly longterm trials, preferably looking at an area where elephants are repopulating an area that they were previously excluded from by fences.
Further trials will also be carried out at Ntsiri Shareblock in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park (KNP). As the weather gets drier, the elephants in this area have targeted water pipes leading to houses and waterholes, causing considerable damage. The chilli extract will be spread on various water-related structures, and any damage will then be monitored.
By comparing this season's damage with job cards over the last five years, the amount of protection afforded by the chilli extract can be determined. The creation of a successful recipe to keep elephants away from specific objects is sure to be popular with humans, but the elephant test subjects will probably be glad when their part in the creation of the perfect recipe is over, and their treats will no longer have to be viewed with caution.