“A chili plant and a bee stop an elephant from walking into a farm …”
You’re on the front porch of your home in a swing, and steam rises from a warm cup of coffee as the aroma of the beans hits your nose. In the distance, you hear birds calling to each other. The heat of the mug warms your aching hands. As you watch the sun set, you have that tired-mixed-with accomplished feeling that only comes from doing a hard day’s work. You look beyond your porch to the fields beyond your lawn. Your fields. Your crops. Rows and rows of hours and hours and days and days of hard work that will finally turn into a paycheck as the harvest nears. As the sun gets lower in the sky your eyelids get heavier and heavier. You get ready for bed with the knowledge that your striving will all pay off soon.
The sunrise brings devastation. There is no crop. There is just trampled stalks and leaves and mud. Your work is gone. Your hope is gone. Your resource for income gone. Gone.
This destruction is not caused by boll weevil or locusts. This isn’t a plague of Biblical proportions. This destruction was caused by elephants.
Elephants may be large, beautiful, majestic creatures to us, but to many people who coexist with elephants in their native ranges in the wild, they can be seen as a nuisance, and even destructive. This human-wildlife conflict can be devastating to both local peoples in the area, and to the wildlife.
Often, when we think about human-wildlife conflict, we think about poaching. Poaching, in our minds, is some guy twisting his mustache like a cartoon villain, gleefully laughing as he kills animals with a merciless, callous, blackened heart that even the joy of Christmas couldn’t make it grow three sizes, but the reality of the situation is much different. In parts of the world, illegal hunting, or poaching, is done for bushmeat to put food on the table to feed a family, or for ivory, pangolin scales, or rhino horn for their value in black markets around the world. It is hard to blame the worker making the minimum wage in Botswana ($0.64 an hour if you were curious), or a farmer who is having their hard work and livelihood destroyed for poaching an animal that could provide financial stability to their family for at least a year if not longer.
I’m not trying to argue for poaching or suggest that every poacher is a person who feels like they have no other option. What I am saying is investing in the education and economic futures of places where animals are threatened by poaching will have a greater impact over time than just antipoaching law enforcement countermeasures. Those countermeasures are great, and we need to strengthen them. Detection dogs, rangers, drones, and all sorts of other technology are fantastic ways to prevent the losses of elephants and other animals threatened by poaching today, but the best way to help those animals of tomorrow is to involve the people of tomorrow as well. When we talk about a OneHealth approach to conservation, we must consider the health and well-being of the people who must coexist with these animal species in the long run.
One great example of providing economic opportunity and being an antipoaching endeavor is the work of one of Zoo Atlanta’s main conservation partners, Conservation South Luangwa, or CSL. CSL works with farmers in the Luangwa River valley in Zambia to provide them with measures to protect their crops from elephants. One way they do this is by providing farmers with chili plants. Elephants do not like the smell of chili plants and will avoid them. By planting chili plants on the outside of their fields, farmers can grow another crop and save their main crop from destruction by elephant. The farmers can then sell some of the chili pods and they will take the rest and dry them and form them into straw and chili bricks, which they will then burn when they are not growing the plants to use the smoke from the chilis to protect their crops from elephants.
Another approach that farmers use to keep elephants out of their fields is beehive fences. A beehive fence is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fence that also can double as a beehive for local bee species. Elephants don’t really care for stinging insects like bees. Big beehives around fields will keep the elephants at bay, help to pollinate flowers in and around the area, and will produce honey for the farmers to eat or sell.
These methods not only focus on the elephants, but also on the well-being of the people in the area where the elephants live. Creating ways where we can help people and save species from extinction is the only way that conservation efforts will have a lasting impact. Endangered species don’t just live in the far remote corners of the world; they can be right in your backyard. Become informed on what threatened or endangered species live near you and what you can do to help them. There are nearly 50 endangered or threatened animal species right here in Georgia, and over 700 throughout the U.S.!
One way we help worldwide conservation efforts is by supporting local institutions that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) who are invested in conservation initiatives around the world, like Zoo Atlanta and our partnership with Conservation South Luangwa. Another way that you can help is that if you are considering traveling abroad to places where animal poaching is part of the local economy, buy informed when it comes to what you eat and what souvenirs you purchase, and support small local businesses to help build those economies up. Finally, consider a donation to a conservation group that works to help locals as well as wildlife! With the end of the year approaching now is a great time to consider such donations either as holiday gifts, a tax write off, or both! (Here is the link to donate to Conservation South Luangwa African Hope Fund – Conservation South Luangwa (networkforgood.com) )
Public Programs Coordinator