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Tanzania—Snap. Crack. Pop. That's the sound of an African elephant with a dangerous case of the munchies crashing through underbrush at 25 miles per hour.
Said Longwa, a 52-year-old farmer and father of nine, used to face down crop-raiding elephants with nothing but a flashlight. Others in Mikumi village would beat tin cans or light fires; some exploded homemade pipe bombs. But the sound and fury didn't deter the largest land mammals on Earth from staging nightly assaults on fields of corn and watermelon.
Mr. Longwa has treated his fence with chili mixed with engine oil—a preparation that adheres to the fence, even in heavy rain. "They will mull it over and often circle two to three times," the farmer says of the elephants that approach his fence. "But once they get a real whiff of the chili, they snuffle and sneeze." And leave the scene. A successful campaign against poachers—and the expansion of national park land—has seen a rise in the elephant population in parts of east Africa. Meanwhile, more farmers are settling nearby in search of fertile land. The result is a rising number of face-to-face meetings between man and elephant.
Birds and insects cause crop damage, too. But they don't consume 660 pounds of food in 18 hours, as big elephants tend to do. Herds of 15 to 20 can quickly wipe out an entire field and obliterate all the work of a subsistence farmer. African elephants also can be very sneaky. Crop raiders tend to work as teams—typically involving three to five elephant family members. Farmers say a lone elephant will scout for tasty, ripe crops. The next night, the scout returns with ravenously hungry reinforcements.