By Rumbidzayi Zinyuke, The Herald / All Africa
Farmers in Mbire District have found an innovative way to reduce human-wildlife conflict through the use of chilli strings and bricks that chase elephants from their communities.
Mbire has a vast forest and wildlife area teeming with wildlife species such as elephants, buffaloes, lions, hippopotamuses, hyenas, leopards and crocodiles.
As a result, cases of wild animals maiming and killing people and livestock as well as destroying crops are high.
To avert the effect on their crops, farmers received training in the production of chilli strings, bricks and bombs which are being used to deter elephants from their fields.
The chilli bricks and bombs are made by mixing elephant or buffalo dung with cow dung, used oil and chilli powder to make a thick paste which is then moulded into bricks or balls.
Once these are completely dry, which can take up to four months, they can then be burnt when the need arises.
The chilli strings are made by soaking strings in a mixture of used oil and chilli for days and then tying them on the periphery of the fields or on pathways often used by the animals to access communities.
The smell of chilli drives away elephants, giving farmers a break from always being on guard to curb their destructive visits.
Mbire Rural District Council executive officer, environment, Mr Tarcicius Mahuni said since 2015, more than 36 people in the district had been killed by wild animals while many others had lost livestock and crops.
“Mbire is in the middle of the protected area so we have inflows of animals coming from Zambia and Mozambique as well as our protected areas like the Dande Safari, Doma Safari and the Chehore Parks areas. They all pass through the district as they migrate and that will cause human-wildlife conflict in the district.
“As a campfire district, we try to live in harmony with our animals despite their shortcomings in terms of killing humans and destroying our crops and domestic animals.
“We only use lethal methods where an animal has killed a human being or when it has injured a person. Otherwise we try to scare away the animals using friendly methods which are not dangerous to both the scouts and the farmers around,” he said.
Mr Mahuni said farmers had received training on growing chilli and the production of chilli bricks and bombs from partners that included the African Wildlife Foundation, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
Initially, four wards that are in hotspot areas received the support, which was then expanded to four other wards close to the hotspot areas.
The programme is expected to continue covering more farmers in other wards.
Those who received training are not only taking chilli production as a way of fighting conflict with wild animals, but a way of sustaining their livelihoods.
Mr Simon Dumba from Chantsato Village said in the three years he had been growing chillies, he had managed to send his grandchildren to school, build a new house for his family and provide for their other needs.
“In the past, we never got rest from these elephants, we always had to be on the lookout.
“When they did manage to get to the field, all we could do was make noise by beating loudly on cans to chase them away. But this does not always work. Sometimes they would come back after a short while. But with the chilli bricks, you can burn it and not have to worry about guarding the field for hours,” he said.
“We have learnt that we should not wait for the elephants to get close to the field but burn the brick a distance away so that it does not see the crops. The elephant becomes more determined if it has already seen the crop and will try again.”
One brick can burn for the whole night and be extinguished to save it for the next day.
From the group of 12 farmers trained along with Mr Dumba, six had dropped out for various reasons.
The remaining members had then trained six more farmers from their community who are now growing chilli.
Mr Maxwell Machekamu said he had found chilli production more sustainable than cotton and other crops he had been growing before he was trained.
“When the first group was being trained, we thought it was not worth a try, but then I was not realising much from my other crops.
“Last year elephants destroyed more than 1 500 tomato plants that had started ripening in my garden and that is when I decided to try chillies and they have made a difference in my life. Not only did I clear my children’s school fees arrears and buy uniforms and food, I no longer have to worry about elephants destroying my crops again,” he said.
He said for farmers like him who were just starting to produce chillies and did not have enough money to buy used oil, they were not moulding bricks but improvising.
They were making piles with goat dung on the bottom then layered with elephant dung and chillies.
Once the elephant dung catches fire, it lights up the goat dung which can burn for hours hence serving the same purpose as the bricks and bombs.
Farmers in the area now plan to start producing chilli on a larger scale, but still have no capacity as they neither have ox-drawn ploughs nor tractors.
They have to manually dig the holes to plant the chilli crop in.