How Chili Condoms and Firecrackers Can Help Save Elephants

A low-cost, low-tech method for scaring elephants away from fields could help people and elephants live in peace.

Fill a condom with chili powder. Mix in small rocks and sand for weight. Add a firecracker for a bang. Launch condom at elephant. Save elephant’s life.

All it takes is one elephant rumbling through a field to destroy a family’s food supply for an entire year, so it’s no surprise that a farmer might turn to the only tool he has available—a spear.

But this elephant warning system gives farmers a low-tech way to scare these animals away from their crops without violence.

The Honeyguide Foundation, a Tanzania-based conservation group, with support from the United States-based Nature Conservancy, is training teams of volunteer “crop protectors” in dozens of villages throughout northern Tanzania to implement the system.

Each night, a member of the team will keep watch over the crops, looking out for elephants. If one is spotted, the volunteer begins the four-step warning system.

First, there are the strobe lights. Shining a bright, flashing light at an elephant in the dark is sometimes enough to make it turn around and leave. If that doesn’t work, the volunteer will sound an air horn. Step three is the chili-firecracker condom. Elephants are extra sensitive to smells, so a cloud of chili powder is usually unpleasant enough to make them leave.

And as a last resort—Roman candles. The loud sound and bright light can go a long way in scaring the elephant.

Chili has been used for decades as an elephant deterrent. Chili-powdered ropes, chili-plant buffer zones, and even smoke bombs made from dried elephant dung and chili powder have been known to keep elephants away. Honeyguide and the Big Life Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization with operations in Kenya and Tanzania, began experimenting with chili grenades made from chili powder, sand, firecrackers, and condoms several years ago.

Elephants are critical to Tanzania’s tourism industry, but for farming communities located near elephant populations, there’s often little choice but to kill them.

"We have really stepped up our crop protection program this year and seen some changes in attitudes with communities and wildlife, especially tolerance for elephants," Honeyguide's Damian Bell said in an email.

Elephants can eat 990 pounds (450 kilograms) of food a day. And they uproot and scatter almost as much as they eat. Crop raiding, as its called, puts the livelihoods and lives of people in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana, India, Indonesia, and other countries at risk. Each year, elephants cause millions of dollars in damage to crops and trample people to death. But with the elephant population under pressure from the ivory trade—some 30,000 are poached each year—protecting them is crucial. Bell said crop destruction can even encourage farmers to turn to poachers because poachers can "sort out the problem for them."

The chili condom grenades are just one tool in a growing arsenal of elephant deterrents. Fences made of beehives, tobacco dust, recordings of tiger growls, and advance-warning text messages are just a few of the ways people are working to help farmers and elephants in African and Asia peacefully coexist.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.

Read This Next

Haitians reflect on the past while confronting the future

Chunk of an ancient supercontinent discovered under New Zealand

These mystery stories solve crimes and spark travel

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet