Monkeys and Hot Sauce

Wobistdude: Please introduce yourself.

Helen: Hello, my name is Helen. I’m 29 and currently living in Berkeley, California. I recently completed my thesis in the Sustainable Resource Management master’s program at the Technical University of Munich. My main interest is wildlife management and habitat conservation.

Helen Bowman

W: You were in South Africa for the past few months. Where exactly did you go and what was the purpose of the trip?

H: I stayed on a game farm in Alldays–a small farming town in Limpopo Province, near the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe. For two months I did the fieldwork and data gathering necessary for my master’s thesis, which investigated chili plants as a potential buffer crop against crop-raiding primates that cause significant financial losses for farmers both in Limpopo and across Africa and Asia.


W: Was this your first time in the country?

H: Yes. I had never been to Africa before, though I had always wanted to go.

W: Describe the community where you were living.

H: I was living in the poorest, most rural province in South Africa. Over 70% of people live below the poverty line, which was hard to see, and many Zimbabweans enter South Africa through Limpopo with nothing in order to look for work. In Blouberg Municipality, which was where I stayed, white Afrikaaners own basically all of the land and represent all of the commercial farmers, even though they make up only 0.6% of the population. This was an uncomfortable fact to deal with, but as I was doing my studies on commercial farms, it was important to try to relate to and understand Afrikaans farming culture.

W: Let’s talk about the farmers. What type of farms and crops did they maintain and what was the significance of these crops for either the community or the local economy?

H: Commercial farmers grow a lot of different squashes, tomatoes, peppers, and melons in Alldays. These crops are not native to the area and are cultivated because they are relatively valuable. Nice looking crops mostly go on to international markets, while smaller, misshapen produce is sold locally.

monkeys cut
Two vervet monkeys relaxing outside my house. They are waiting until I left to come inside and steal my food!

W: How have monkeys been historically disruptive to the farmers’ crop yields?

H: Chacma baboons and vervet monkeys are native to Limpopo and are common across southern Africa. They are primates like us and basically like to eat a lot of the same things we do. Crops are very tempting, particularly during the dry season when natural foods are scarce. They represent a concentrated and easily accessible source of calories and nutrients, so even though raiding can be dangerous, even fatal, it is still often worth it for wildlife to raid. Primates are cited by farmers in Alldays as the most problematic crop-raiders because they travel in large groups and are extremely intelligent and adaptive. They can get over any fence, and learn quickly when presented with new challenges. Farmers say that there is nothing they do that has had any effect keeping baboons and vervets from raiding crops. Even shooting them is more retaliation than a prevention strategy. Farmers report losing thousands of dollars to wildlife from crop-raiding each year.

the hide
This is the hide I made and set up at my site. Sitting inside, I could watch the chili field and the water trough at the same time and record wildlife visitations and behaviors.

W: What have farmers been traditionally doing to deal with these crop-raiding monkeys?

H: Farmers will typically hire guards if they can afford it, either armed or unarmed, to chase away or shoot crop-raiders. Because primates are so agile and adaptive, very few non-fatal deterrents have any effect at keeping them out of crop fields. Some non-fatal methods that have been tried to no success including combinations of loud noises, predator sounds, scarecrows, and predator scents. Fatal methods include shooting, trapping, and setting out poisoned bait.

M: That brings us to chilies. How did this idea come up as a monkey deterrent?

H: I was interested in non-fatal preventative strategies. Chilies contain capsaicin, which mammals have receptors for that cause us perceive chilies as hot. Capsaicin from chilies has been used to an extent to deter rodents, and more recently chili oils have been used with great success to keep elephants from raiding crops in certain areas in Africa and Asia. This, combined with the fact that cayenne peppers grow well in Limpopo, was what led me to want to experiment with chilies as a mitigation strategy for farmers.

image from camera trap
Here is a typical image from one of my camera traps set up inside the chili field. Mostly it captured images of farm workers. Wildlife rarely entered the field.

W: What were the results of the study? Which deterring strategy was most effective?

H: I had time restraints on my project, so it was not possible to plant any buffer crops and test them as a crop-raiding deterrent during my time in South Africa. Instead, I compared primate visitation rates and behaviors at a chili field with those at a nearby palatable crop field. Baboons and vervet monkeys visited the palatable crop field about 3 times per week and raided almost every visit. Only vervet monkeys visited the chili site, but never to raid—only to drink water at a nearby cattle trough. I found significant statistical differences between raiding behaviors at the two sites, so it is my recommendation for farmers to plant buffer crops of chili peppers around valued crops, and to test the effectiveness of the crop at mitigating damage.

water hole camera trap
I set up a camera trap at the water hole near my chili field site. This attracted a lot of wildlife, including vervet monkeys.

W: After spending time in this community, how do you feel about the coexistence of wildlife and farmers in this area?

H: Luckily, neither baboons nor vervet monkeys are endangered in this community, so I don’t have to worry about those populations. However, there is pretty intense persecution of predators amongst farmers in the area. Many farmers raise either cattle or antelope, and have a hatred of leopards and hyenas because they claim that they predate on their animals. I don’t believe that predation rates excuse the level of persecution that goes on. Hunting predators is illegal in the area at the moment, but laws are rarely enforced and every hunter I interviewed told me they kill leopards on site. Two were killed shortly after I left the projects. Ironically, removing predators from the ecosystem will only lead to an increase in pest animals like baboons.

brown hyena
Here is a brown hyena caught on my camera trap overnight.

W: Did anything about your experience, either from doing the study or living in the community itself, surprise you?

H: Although I am very grateful I got the chance to live and work in Limpopo, I was surprised by the levels of socio-economic, and thereby racial, segregation that are still in effect there. It made me really uncomfortable and also made me think about problems in my own country and what can be done to help. I don’t have answers yet, but it will be on my mind a lot in the future.

giraffe startled
A giraffe I startled on my way to the study site.

W: Where can people go to learn more about this project?




Helen Bowman

Helen is 29 and currently living in Berkeley, California. She recently completed her thesis in the Sustainable Resource Management master’s program at the Technical University of Munich. Her main interest is wildlife management and habitat conservation.

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