Fighting Elephants with Chili

An African elephant, one of only four species of elephants still alive. (Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A little bit of spicy chili peppers is all African farmers need to keep hungry elephants from stealing crops.

By planting a few rows of chili peppers around the perimeter of their crops, farmers have created a buffer zone that's spicy enough to keep elephants, buffalo, and other hungry mammals away.

"Chili peppers are unpalatable to crop-raiding mammals, so they give farmers an economically feasible means of minimizing damage to their investments," said Loki Osborn, project director for the Elephant Pepper Development Trust.

Farmers also can mix the chili peppers into a spray that drives animals away.

Chili peppers have been used to keep elephants away since 1997 because they were a cheap alternative to building expensive electric fences. And as a bonus, the peppers have turned into a valuable cash crop themselves.

"They can be grown as buffer crops to prevent crop-raiding and then be harvested and sold on the world market through the trust," Osborn said.

The trust formed two companies – the African Spices Company in Zambia and the Chili Pepper Company in Zimbabwe – to produce and distribute bottled hot sauces, jams, and relishes made from the peppers.

Proceeds from these spicy condiments are donated trust to support the development of chili growing projects.

Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.