A 4.2 tonne bull, Hop-A-Long was wreaking havoc in the country’s remote north-western town of Chirundu, overturning market stalls and knocking off roofs in a clumsy search for food.
In October, rangers from Zimbabwe’s state national parks and wildlife authority warned wildlife workers that Hop-A-Long had three days to move out of town for good. If he didn’t, he’d be shot.
Game capture expert, Aaron Young, 41, wanted the big elephant to get just one more chance.
Young had heard of “chilli guns” being used to keep elephants away from crops in rural Zimbabwe, but never in built-up areas.
The gun is used to shoot a blast of concentrated chilli oil at an elephant, teaching him to keep away from a particular area. The aim is to inflict a bad enough temporary burn to persuade the trespasser that an area is best avoided. Others in his herd are repelled by the chilli stain on the elephant and learn to stay away too.
In the last five months, Young has made it his mission to help save Hop-A-Long and the other rogue elephants of Chirundu.
The busy border town has been a magnet for elephants in recent years, mostly because it provides a ready supply of badly-disposed of food in uncovered rubbish dumps, bins and next to houses.
Elephant herds “were getting stuck in town”, Mr Young said. “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. And the young ones, the six- or seven-year-olds, were teaching their little sisters to stay too. The worst was the markets. The Zambians were coming across with citrus.”
Working with fishing lodge owner Nic Coetzee, Mr Young knew that they needed to use the local version of the chilli gun developed by Zimbabwean expert Mike La Grange, to create a “virtual barrier” around Chirundu. That barrier, which runs along a road, is now patrolled by skilled tracker Backson Siamusunga, who can recognise individual elephants by their footprints. If an elephant crosses the barrier, Backson alerts Mr Coetzee or Mr Young. They speed off to “shoot” the trespasser with the chilli gun.
“It’s not nice, but it’s better than a bullet,” Mr Young said. He explained that the burn can last for three days, especially if it’s on or near the elephant’s lips or face,
“We’ve not had one elephant shot [by rangers] since we started,” he added.