Hot Chilies Keep Elephants At Bay

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Benedicte Kurzen / EVE for TIME

The Chili Factor Loki Osborn makes a business of keeping elephants at bay

With a PhD in zoology from Cambridge University, Loki Osborn went to Africa intent on saving elephants. But after he got there in the mid-1990s, he realized the problem isn't too few elephants, but too many. Elephant conservation efforts in southern Africa, centered on setting aside parks and curtailing poaching, have been a great success, raising the population from 283,000 10 years ago to 400,000 today. But as a result, today elephants are killing people, as well as the other way around. The Kenya Wildlife service says elephants kill more people in its parks than all other predators combined. Zoologists estimate that elephants kill 500 people a year worldwide; great white sharks, by comparison, kill four. Part of the problem is an expanding human population. But with an African elephant population growing at a rate of 4.5% a year, the animals are moving into areas where they haven't been seen in 100 years, if ever. From his base next to Victoria Falls in Livingstone, Zambia, a country where their numbers have risen from 7,000 to 30,000 in the last decade and where up to 10 people are being gored or trampled each year, Osborn found elephants were making new enemies. "The view of most people I met was that if they could have elephants shot, they would," he says. So what is a professionally-trained friend of elephants to do?

If you're Osborn, you go back to your roots. He originally hails from Louisiana and is a member of the Mcllhenny family, which makes Tabasco Sauce. "I grew up with chilies," says Osborn, 41. "I'm kind of obsessed by them, actually." Of course, he is also pretty obsessive about elephants. He knew, for instance, that the elephant trunk is around 130 times more sensitive than the human nose. He could imagine what it would be like breathing in chili pepper with a probiscus like that. And he started to imagine what a boon it would be if he could persuade African farmers to grow chilies.

American shoppers will be able to buy the result of Osborn's ruminations from this Christmas: Elephant Pepper hot sauces, retailing at $3.99 from the Whole Foods Market chain. It's the culmination of a long travail. When Osborn founded the Elephant Pepper Development Trust in 1999, his main aim was to help farmers deter elephants. He initially went high-tech, consulting Israeli pepper spray manufacturers about designing an aerosol pepper grenade. It worked, but to catch on with subsistence farmers, Osborn had to find a cheaper solution. Hence his invention of the chili fence — a rope hung with rags smeared in engine grease mixed with crushed chilies. And chili smoke, generated by burning animal dung mixed with chilies. Elephants would get a whiff of that and, to the delight of nearby farmers, trot off trumpeting into the distance.

But to encourage farmers to spend time and money growing chilies, Osborn realized they had to see it as not just a defensive move, but as a business venture. "Then there's no question of sustainability," he says. So Osborn set up the Elephant Pepper Company, buying surplus chilies left over from what was needed for elephant deterrents and turning them into sauce. Initially he worked from his kitchen in Harare, Zimbabwe, making around 500 bottles of hot sauce a year, which he sold in local supermarkets. Today, with the help of new partner Michael Gravina, he has expanded, selling some chilies direct to Tabasco and experimenting with his own recipes to produce four flavors, Baobab Gold, Zambezi Red, Mozambique Masala and Zanzibar Spice, in sauces and spice grinders. Ten percent of the price of all his products goes back to the Trust to buy seedlings and train more farmers and game wardens in chili deterrents.

Osborn's conservation methods are proving to be as popular as his hot sauce. It's a perfect win-win. With its rising funds, the Trust now trains wardens from as far away as India and Vietnam in chili deterrence. Wildlife groups from Sumatra to the Serengeti, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature, now use chilies to control elephants. Meanwhile, farmers who are growing chilies in Livingstone have seen their annual income triple from $90 before planting their new cash crop to $300 a year now. Osborn hopes the new Elephant Pepper sauces will create a demand that will allow him to spread chili-farming across Africa.

Despite his success, Osborn has no illusions that chilies will stem elephant-human conflict completely. The problem is only going to rise with the burgeoning elephant population, he says, and Livingstone is a prime spot for viewing the consequences. Each dusk, when elephant feeding time starts, a voluntary curfew descends on the town. This summer, a few miles from his office, tourists at Victoria Falls watched horrified as an adult animal attempted a new route across the Zambezi River and was swept over the rapids. A short walk upriver, Osborn takes me to meet Catherine Lolozi, 48, whose husband Luwaya Kikomeno, 49, was stripped, disemboweled and tossed into a tree by an elephant as he walked home on a city street on June 29. Lolozi is still too traumatized to speak. Her neighbor Mumandi Phanwer proffers: "An animal is an animal — it kills."

For all his love of the animals, Osborn can also sympathize with their victims. "What we are dealing with here is pure destruction," he says. "You can see why, if you lived here, you might look at elephants with fear and hate." His hope is that chilies will help Africa's farmers and elephants reach a tolerant state of live-and-let-live. "I'm not sure we can get people to love and respect elephants," says Osborn. "But ambivalent will do."