Can Incense Sticks Help Protect Crops from Elephants?

By Salik Ansar

Pradeep’s father along with Pradeep’s wife and daughter, welcoming us to their farm.

Almost every other day we read about some “human-elephant” conflict in the local Sri Lankan newspapers. Some claimed that 2019 has seen the most deaths of elephants, due to human elephant conflicts. The government resorted to the dubious strategy of handing out guns to the Civil Defense Force and wildlife officers in order to control the problem. Through-out the passage of time, humanity has never been great at making moral judgements. Lack of government regulations, rightful laws, proper economical structure and even cultural knowledge, the humans and elephants become victims of this shortfall. Sadly, without proper regulations and monitoring, the human-elephant conflict will only increase in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile conservationists are also busy finding ways to reduce the suffering from either of the two sides – the Elephants or the Humans. There is a “corridor” between the Udawalawe National Park and Lunugamvera National Park. Elephants move through the linking forest patches, and throughout the cultivated landscapes next door. There are also small pockets of communities, nearly all of which are farmers, so their entire livelihood depends on the sale of their crops. Due to the population of elephants living in and around these agricultural areas, this landscape has become prone to human-elephant conflicts over the years. So it is an important test case for those of us interested in resolving the problems.

New adventure

Last year, Trunks & Leaves was approached by HDDeS Pvt Ltd, one of the largest exporters of spices, essences and floral extracts. Under their Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, they had on their own researched and developed a special type of incense stick that they believed will ward off elephants. Preliminary tests by the Wildlife department in Sri Lanka and even some NGOs in based in Africa suggested promise. They expressed their interest in testing this product in Udawalawe to see if it helps the farmers in the area. So we signed a mutual agreement, or Memorandum of Understanding, to test the sticks for HDDeS. In return, HDDeS will provide feedback into what other useful elephant-tolerant species could be cultivated in these areas, to supplement farmers’ incomes.

After some careful planning and collecting the sticks donated by HDDeS, it was time to begin! We decided to test these products in 10 of the farms in the Udawalawe corridor region. We would use camera traps in addition to the farmers’ own observations to document whether the sticks were working, over a one-month period. I accompanied the UWERP team, Sameera, Kumara and Ravi, on their initial visits to three of the prospective farmers.

Pradeep

The first farmer we visited was Pradeep, from the Kiwala Suriya Ara area. When we arrived at his place, unfortunately he had to travel to the nearest town for an emergency, and we were welcomed by his father, along with his wife and kids.

Their harvest of “bittergourd” was in the budding stage. One of the neighbors had spotted an elephant in this area a few days back, so Pradeep and his family were deeply worried about crop raids. A few months back the family had struggled to survive, since elephants had raided their crops. Bittergourd is a cash crop, and supposed to be resistant to elephants. But evidently this was not the case, elephants threatened their livelihood.

Bittergourd, yet to be harvested in Pradeep’s farm.

Pradeep’s father was kind enough to walk us around the farm and even showed us burnt tires, mainly used to chase away the elephants, the flames and the pungent smell, usually wards off the elephants they said. Would the incense sticks, which don’t appear to have a displeasing odor to humans, have a similar effect?

Burnt tires and the burnt marks on the ground, there were many like this surrounding their farm.

Most of these farms have an outpost, or a tree house of sorts, where every night there is a person watching the farms for any crop raiding. Some farms do not have the means to set up the tree house and often spot the elephants too late.

Makeshift wooden outpost.

Sameera, being the familiar face for the farmers, broached the topic of our Incense stick project. Pradeep’s wife and father were gracious in allowing us to test the sticks. They hoped that it works so that they can harvest their crops in peace, without the need to chase away the elephants.

 

Sumith

Sumith’s farm was much larger than previous.  Sameera roughly estimates the size of the area to be around 8 acres. This meant we had to trek quite a bit. Unlike Pradeep, Sumith’s main harvest is paddy. After about 15 to 20 minutes of walking we arrived at his paddy field. He lamented about how the two main culprits for his crop raids are elephants and wild boars. Every night either he or his helper stays up to make sure elephants or wild boars don’t enter into the field.

Sumith’s paddy field, often raided by elephants and wild boars.

Much like Pradeep, Sumith was also very responsive and willing to try out the incense stick, he was skeptical at first but as we spoke about the possible benefits, he was more receptive to the idea. Sameera and Kumara kept thought that Sumith’s farm is a good testing spot, as it is near the forest area and paddy is a very attractive crop for elephants.

 

Sumith (on the left) and his assistant, they take turns and keep an eye on the paddy for the whole time, i.e 24 hrs.

Jayasena

Just as we entered the third and final farm for the day, we were welcomed by two elderly people. Jayasena and his wife extended their greetings and gave us king coconuts to drink. Unlike the previous two farms, Jayasena harvests bananas, and in between each banana tree, he grows local chili. He said that the days where he waits for the bananas to ripen up, he sells the chili and that income allows them to sustain till they are able to harvest the bananas.


In between the banana trees, Jayasena has planted chilies, as an alternative crop.

Jayasena is also a victim of crop raids. Sameera related a story from a few years back, where Jayasena had to forgo his entire yield due to elephants, he had to start over, which costed him money and time. He agreed for our incense project testing as well and assured us that he will help us in every way possible.

Jayasena relaying his worries and hoping for a solution.

While talking with Sameera and the farmers, one thing was very admirable. Despite the elephants raiding their crops, none of the three farmers retaliated in any harmful way; they mostly just chased them away. The fact that they didn’t harm the elephants spoke volumes. In a day and age where it is easier to shoot in self-protection, affected people still chose a more passive approach.

In the coming few weeks the incense stick project would be underway and we would be visiting again to see the progress. Is the incense stick project a success? What is T&L going to do now? How will the farmers benefit? Lookout for our next blog!

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