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 Zimbabwe’s staple 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 distributes old fuel drums, which are turned into bins, and tries 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.