Gently keeping the giants away

chilly smoke

This harsh pitiless summer didn’t just make us humans hapless hotheads, but more importantly,  drained the sap out of wildlife. News of human-wildlife interactions nothing but tripled across the Western Ghats. The year began with 6 elephant mortalities, 6 human deaths and over 9 human-elephant interactions reported in a period of just one month starting January 1, 2016. It has only deteriorated ever since, the last being that of an elephant electrocuted in Mysuru in May 2016.


The sneezing jumbo
Two months ago when I visited Sathanur, a village located close to Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, I witnessed several farms raided by elephants. In fact, over 30 farms were affected in just a day, leaving several farmers growing cash crops like bananas completely devastated. When I visited one of the farms in May — something had changed. Elephants had raided neighbouring farms thrice over 2 weeks, but hadn’t ventured into Eshwarappa’s land, which was otherwise a frequenting herd’s favourite pad for its bananas and coconuts. “We have been using ropes laced with chilli paste and tobacco around the fence to ward off elephants. Our fence has been broken in several places, and yet this time, they avoided our land thrice. We are really overjoyed.”

Another similar defence mechanism is the use of chilli smoke. “Chilli smoke is generated by burning red or green chilli pods and tobacco along with dry grass. If you use pungent variety of chilli, the smoke can cause coughing and sneezing in animals. We have been using this method in our study area in Uttara Kannada district in Karnataka for the last 6 years. Elephants avoid the paths where they encounter smoke. Our farmers have reported that they have heard the elephants sneeze and cough,” explains Prachi Mehta, executive director, research, Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS), that has trained over 500 farmers.

Back in 2002, Save The Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton and fellow scientist Fritz Vollrath disclosed how elephants stay away from acacia trees with beehives. Kenya also succeeded in using beehive fences to ward off elephants. “Farmers in Karnataka have been using this method for a few years now. It has proved to be successful,” explains Dr Surendra Varma, biologist and member of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, who believes these indigenous methods are economical, efficient and also, not harmful to elephants. The sound of bee buzzing makes elephants nervous as they are afraid of bee sting. “We made fences of naturally colonised wood logs and clay pots. Elephants can smell the bee-wax, honey and can hear the buzzing from a distance. That way they have been avoiding the areas with log hives,” discloses Prachi.

Trip alarms are also being used extensively now. As its impossible to stay up all night and guard, besides it being precarious and challenging to spot elephants in the night — the idea of trip alarms come as a boon. It alerts the farmer in advance and he can actively try to keep the elephant out of the field.

Back in Sathanur, Eshwarappa hadn’t used chilli smoke in over 2 weeks. “It is quite expensive. I own 2 acres, and to replenish every 3 days is proving to be expensive.” Chilli smoke costs anywhere between Rs 30 and Rs 70 for one application. But if one compares this with other most popular mitigation measures like solar fence or chain link fences, that costs between Rs 1 lakh and 3 lakh per km, it sure is much cheaper. Prachi confirms that most materials used in chilli smoke or bee hive fences are low-cost and low-tech. “The farmers can use the methods on their own and do not need interventions from Forest Department or civil society organisations.”

The hurdle
And yet, there have been instances of farm raids even on lands which were once laced with chilli powder or abuzz with bees. Dr Surendra’s team have trained and assisted farmers in Bannerghatta with these mitigation measures. In the initial 2 years, farms that were frequented by elephants witnessed a much welcome absence without leave. “But in the third, elephants slowly began to venture. The reason being farmers were not putting the same effort in maintaining and vigilantly keeping up the practice. This is the biggest challenge — unfortunately, after initial training and help, it’s the farmer who holds the key to his farm. The farmer has to diligently keep up the practice without breaks, using chilli smoke once a month won’t help,” says Dr Surendra. Prachi seconds that: “We motivate and train farmers to use crop guarding measures which are easy to use and affordable. However, it is an uphill task as it requires involvement of farmers in guarding their own crops. In each village, we find a section of the community willing to participate whereas some individuals will expect the Forest Department to provide the relief for them.”

Most farmers have one question — won’t this highly intelligent animal get habituated to this too? To which, Prachi believes rotating the mitigation methods will suffice. But is it effective in all seasons? “During the rains, it is difficult to do ground chilli smoke. But it is possible to make chilli smoke in tin boxes. So, different types of alarms are used along trip wires. They are used to warn the farmer that there is movement. The rainwater may spoil the trip alarm battery. but it can be covered with waterproof material or kept indoors. There will be seasonal and weather related problems but it can be addressed easily,” assures Prachi.

While many individuals and select civil society organisations continue to hold several community education programmes to expose farmers to these innovative measures, it all boils down to one important factor — the government. If mitigation measures such as these speak of several successful case studies, why isn’t it being advanced more aggressively? “It means coming together of scientists, the forest department, assisting civil society organisations and funds — it has been suggested before, and yet compensation is viewed as an easier getaway. It doesn’t address the real issue, of course,” says a source with the Forest Department.

In the meantime, Eshwarappa is considering trip alarms, and when his neighbours watch the orchard farm with a few raised eyebrows in the near future — ideas will be shared and word will spread. And, hopefully, them gentle giants will find their way back to forests less harassed and unharmed.

The article was published in The Deccan Herald 

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