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.
By Melissa Wray