Chilli gun keeps elephants out of busy Zimbabwe town

2015-04-08 00:00

CHIRUNDU — Conservationists in northern Zimbabwe are using a gun that blasts a burning solution of chilli pepper to keep elephants away from a busy town.

On the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Chirundu provides a ready feast for elephants: heaps of badly-disposed-of food in rubbish dumps and next to houses, says Aaron Young, who is part of a pioneering chilli gun project in the town.

Rogue elephant Hop-A-Long was given just three days last October to get out of Chirundu for good or get shot, Young (41) told News24.

Hop-A-Long, who’s around 35 years old, had raided homes in the town one time too many. He pushed off roofs in a desperate search for mealie meal, Young says. State rangers warned local wildlife lovers that the bull had been classified as a problem animal and would be put down.

Young, who has worked in professional game capture, remembered the “chilli guns” he’d heard of that are sometimes used to stop elephants raiding crops in rural Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

The gun shoots concentrated chilli oil (roughly 50 times the strength of Tabasco) at an elephant, teaching it to keep away from a particular area. Other members of the herd smell the chilli stain and also learn which areas are best avoided.

No one had used the guns to keep elephants away from an urban area in Zimbabwe before. Working with Mike la Grange who developed a local version of the gun, and local fishing lodge owner Nic Coetzee, Young decided it was worth a try.

“There were three bulls and two migrant herds getting stuck in town,” Young says. “The adults were teaching their young that it wasn’t worth migrating. It was as if they were saying: ‘hey, if you hang around here, there’s food’.

“The elephants were getting into the same pattern of behaviour from as young as 15 months.”

Young and Coetzee decided that they needed to create a “virtual barrier” round the town. Once an elephant crosses the barrier, he is “shot” with the chilli gun.

“We take a first, second, even a third shot: the closer the better. We usually fire from seven to eight metres away,” Young says. The elephant’s head is the target.

“You’ve really got to put the wind up the elephant. You’ve got to create a little bit of fear. It’s not nice, but it’s better than the bullet,” Young says.

Hop-A-Long, who’d hung around Chirundu for the past two decades, got the message pretty quickly. But it soon became clear that the chilli gun project had to be a long-term course of action.

“We realised that once Hop-A-Long and the other bulls moved out of town for a few days they were quickly replaced by a new group of young bulls who wanted to take their place,” Young says.

“On my first night patrol we noticed the town was packed with elephants.”

It’s tiring work. A shift patrolling the virtual barrier can last up to 19 hours. But the success of the project is seen today in the fact that Hop-A-Long has not been shot by rangers. His fellow trespassers — Chilli Boy, Doughnut and others — are also still alive.

The team also distribute old fuel drums, which are turned into bins, and try to persuade Chirundu residents not to leave food and waste in places where they’ll tempt the elephants.

“We’ve not had one elephant shot since we started,” Young says.

Best of all, the elephants seem to understand that Young and Coetzee are trying to help them. Even if the chilli oil does hurt.

Last month, Young was at Coetzee’s fishing lodge with family members. The vehicle used for chilli gun patrols was clearly visible and would have been instantly recognised by the town’s elephants.

Wonderfully, the elephants walked calmly into the camp with their calves to visit.

“They don’t hate me. They understand,” Young says.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.