The tragic story of the pregnant elephant in Kerala who died after eating a pineapple stuffed with crackers sparked nationwide outrage last year. Whilst forest officials say it was most likely an unfortunate happenstance, they also conceded that the trap was probably laid by farmers who wanted to protect their crops from wild boar.
Human-wildlife conflict, in the context of agriculture, is a complex issue, as for many farmers the extent of crop loss that can be incurred by wildlife is significant enough to threaten their livelihood. On the other hand, incidents like these demonstrate the heartbreaking impact on wild animals and pose the question of whether it is necessary to resort to such extreme methods to protect crops from wildlife, as well as suggest a consideration of ethical methods that can be a viable alternative.
A local farmer who wishes to remain anonymous shared that he chooses not to use barbed wire fencing because it can hurt some animals. ‘It takes a little bit of work, but a well-designed fence can keep away animals without harming them,’ he says. This farmer, who has a five-acre farm of pepper, cardamom and a wide variety of fruit trees, installed a 2300-metre chain-link fence around his property to protect his crops. The fence stands seven feet above the ground and is placed one foot inside the ground (made by first digging a trench) with rocks lined along its inside. He says that this has been effective in keeping out porcupine, wild boar, sambar deer and gaur, whom he sees roaming around on the other side of the fence.
Patti Anne Tower, administrator of the Aeon Trust and Centre of Cosmology at Skambha Estate, suggested some effective strategies that have been employed with a significant degree of success. Skambha, which was founded in 1986 and used to be home to Caroselle Cheese until May 2018, now grows and sells a variety of organic greens and (more recently) butter beans. It is located close to Pethuparai, in a valley frequented by monkeys, birds, Indian bison, hares and elephants.
‘In the beginning, the only thing we could successfully grow was kale, because the monkeys would eat everything else,’ Patti shared. Through careful observation and consideration of the threats involved, Skambha has managed to overcome these challenges without resorting to means that harm wildlife.
One guiding principle Skambha has used is to design preventive methods specific to the wild animals. For example, the solar garden, which contains crops that require protection from monkeys, such as cucumber, capsicum and papaya, is completely covered by chicken mesh so that monkeys cannot get in from above, and it also has a solar electric fence all around it. Monkeys do not eat greens, hence the greens garden does not require overhead protection.
The greens garden, which used to be a baby cow’s paddock and therefore had a chain-link fence in place already, was reinforced with cement sheets to keep out wild hares. Patti says this has been effective in keeping out wild boar too. She also feels that having other areas where wild boar can root around without disturbing crops helps satisfy their appetites whilst keeping crops safe.
This is a concept explored in permaculture, a design- and systems-based approach to sustainable farming and living in which areas within a piece of land are divided into ‘zones’, according to their use and the frequency with which they are visited. Often the outer zones are designated ‘wild’ areas to provide sustenance for wildlife. The proposed logic behind this is that allowing for a wild space, where nature is left to its own devices, will reap benefits for the rest of the land. Some of these benefits include integrated pest management (natural predators keeping pest populations in check), wild weed species bringing mineral and nutrient balances to the soil, increased microbial and fungal diversity in the soil, an increase in populations of pollinators, natural fertiliser from the dung of wild animals (elephants, gaur and different species of deer) to enrich the soil, as well as creating spaces that draw wild animals away from the areas you would like to protect.
Patti recounts how elephants used to regularly pass through the agro paddock at Skambha. This was left fallow and allowed to grow wild for three years after Skambha sold their cows. To redirect the elephants, they put up a living fence around it. The elephants continued to pass through Skambha’s property, but instead of knocking down the fence (which would have been easy for them to do) they re-routed to pass through without disturbing the agro paddock, allowing Skambha to grow butter beans there.
At Skambha they live in harmony with elephants without suffering any damage from them, so far. Patti says they do not use any aggressive methods such as bursting crackers or other loud noises to scare away the elephants, which only serves to agitate them, eliciting retaliation/destruction of crops and property. Her estate manager, D John Thomas, suggested that shining a light at the elephants and using clicking sounds is an effective deterrent that does not agitate them.
Well-designed solar electric fencing can also be effective in keeping out all species of wild animals, including elephants, according to George Eapen, who has experience spanning 25 years in the design, supply and implementation of solar fencing solutions for the control of targeted species through his company, Fenzgard. Fences can be designed to control high-impact herd animals like gaur and nilgai.
‘Elephants are sensitive, so they don’t need extremely high voltage shock to be deterred,’ George explains. Fenzgard follows international safety guidelines, endorsed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), in ensuring that their electric fence energisers do not exceed 5 joules, to deter wild animals without harming them. Fenzgard has been successful in deterring elephants on the Indo-Nepal border, where an 18 kilometre World Bank–funded solar electric fence kept out over 200 elephants and prevented 40 percent crop loss. Its efficacy even caused some controversy as a result of concerns about the consequences for India.
Safety remains a grey area, as no guidelines exist for Indian farmers to follow. Consequently, not all electric fence energisers used by farmers follow BIS standards. ‘Some energisers in the local market deliver extremely high pulse energy, whilst claiming to follow BIS standards,’ says George. In the event of a fatality, the farmer alone is held responsible, so it is important to look for genuine safety certification markings. Electric fencing that does not follow legal safety standards has led to the electrocution of both wild animals and humans.
Electric fences condition all animals in the habitat to learn to respect the barrier and keep away. This psychological barrier can safely deter wildlife if well managed. However, the prevalent use of extremely powerful energisers can make elephants more aggressive and likely to challenge electric fences that follow safety standards, thus undermining the concept.
This suggests that overcoming challenges of coexistence while choosing to live close to nature and adopting aggressive means is ultimately short-sighted, leading to greater challenges, more formidable threats and loss for both animals and humans in the long-term.
In discussing non-aggressive methods to protect crops from wild animals, Lekshmi Raveendran, an ecologist who worked as the programme manager of the Kodaikanal International School Centre for Environment and Humanity, said, ‘Creating a trench around the property with a tiny bridge which elephants and bison cannot cross is an effective measure and standard practice employed by the forest department to protect field stations inside the forest.’ Another, she said, is to consider giving up growing crops that are routinely destroyed by wild animals. She referred to a case of how this was successfully employed in Masinagudi, where turmeric was grown as an alternative.
Lekshmi suggests that financial assistance to farmers is required to set up and transition to non-invasive strategies of wildlife control. She also suggests that compensation for crop loss could help farmers absorb the impact of the damage without feeling the need to resort to aggression. The threat to livelihood as well as the emotional impact of loss are the driving forces behind reactive means of wildlife control.
The animal insurance scheme employed successfully by WWF Nepal to aid conservation of the endangered snow leopard is an example she cites. The population of snow leopards was initially threatened by herders, who saw the animals as a menace to their livestock. The scheme helped herders see the snow leopards (and their contributions to the ecosystem) in a new light, whilst helping them absorb the impact of their losses.
Closer to home, in Vellagavi (a village near Vattakanal), a local farmer, Kumar, who grows bananas and oranges, told TKC that in 2017 the village experienced many problems with bison. The forest department solved the problem by installing barbed wire fences at vulnerable points of entry. Since then, the villagers have not had any more problems with wildlife, except for monkeys, which they manage by chasing them away.
This demonstrates a considered, cautious approach to establishing a safe boundary between human habitation (and farms) and wildlife. The evidence seems to suggest that this, too, can be effective in deterring wildlife from protected areas in a way that is harmonious and respectful to all, without having to resort to aggressive methods.