Can Lemongrass Help Reduce Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka?

By Salik Ansar  

So-called human-elephant conflict has been a recurring issue in Sri Lanka for years. With no viable and permanent solution, different organizations and groups come up with their own plan and methods of dealing with this dilemma. Some, of course, favor humanity at the cost of the wildlife.

With farmers constantly suffering from crop raids and elephants being subjected to agonizing forms of repellents, Trunks & Leaves dedicated our energy and resources to finding a suitable solution to this issue. Our aim is to achieve peaceful coexistence between people and elephants by developing sustainable agricultural models that are compatible with elephants and, at the same time, securing the livelihoods of farmers. We believe that the solution to this is to understand the problem from both angles: the elephants and the farmers.

A few months ago, we partnered with HDDeS Pvt Ltd, one of the largest exporters of spices, essences and floral extracts in Sri Lanka, to test if incense sticks can deter elephants. This project has been set back due to the pandemic but is still ongoing. But we are now exploring ways to develop alternate sources of income for farmers who lose crops to elephants.

The climate and landscape of the Udawalawe region are fertile for plants like lemongrass, and the value of this plant has increased due to the commercial importance of aromatic oil. This is a product HDDeS needs, and research shows that it is not preferred by elephants. Thus, Trunks & Leaves and HDDeS Pvt. Ltd are interested in trying lemongrass as a supplementary crop to provide additional income which can hopefully offset losses from elephants.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) is an aromatic and tall sedge that grows in many parts of tropical and sub-tropical Southeast Asia and Africa.

Roughly 100 saplings are needed for 25 farmers, and HDDeS worked with Export Development Board Sri Lanka (EDB) to obtain the lemongrass crop for the project. Then, the farmers can expand their plantations by increasing their crop yield. 

Our field team, based in Udawalawe, was tasked with finding a group of farmers to pilot this project. They have built a good rapport with the community over the years, so we were able to approach the farming community with ease. Sameera, our Field Manager, identified three villages affected by crop raids and willing to listen to our project proposal.

Next, it was time for the field visit. Mr. Thilak, General Manager of HDDeS Group, joined for the journey, and his experience with essences and oil extraction was critical to the visit.

First Stop: Kithul Kotte

Our first stop was Kithul Kotte, a remote settlement within the Udawalawe region. During our journey, Thilak and I observed numerous citronella plantations that were not cultivated. As far as “elephant-resistant” crops go, lemongrass and citronella are similar, so this looked promising.

Sameera speaks to a set of farmers about our lemongrass proposal.

During our discussion with the local farmers, it became evident that they have experience in farming citronella, and some of them still have acres of citronella plantations. One of the farmers explained that there was a surge in the demand for citronella oil two years ago, so a local businessman had set up an extraction unit to convert crops to oil. The farmers used to make a good profit from this, but a sudden decline in the demand left the farmers with acres of citronella plantations and no one to buy the crop. This is one of the typical risks for farmers around the world who grow cash crops – the prospect that can fluctuate drastically. It’s a major reason why switching crops is also difficult, since one can never know how it will do tomorrow.

Since there is already an extraction unit, the farmers are experienced in cultivating citronella, and Thilak was interested in purchasing citronella oil (in addition to the lemongrass oil), this group of farmers was a perfect fit for our project. We requested that they speak to the owner of the extraction unit to find out if they can get it up and running again, and Thilak took an oil sample from the farmers to test the quality and determine the price he can offer.

Second Stop: Mahaweva

At our second stop, we met a group of farmers who shared similar woes. Elephants had been raiding their crops, which were mostly banana plantations and other vegetables. They also had experience in cultivating citronella, although they had to transport the crops to an extraction mill that was 7-8 km away. When the prices were high, the farmers were willing to bear the transportation costs. However, the declining demand made citronella cultivation less attractive.

A local farmer (right) tells us about the transportation issue.

The farmers were receptive to our lemongrass project and the objective of providing an alternate source of income for them. Since cultivating lemongrass is a similar process to cultivating citronella, the farmers had the knowledge to understand what needed to be done. The only issue with this set of farmers was arranging transport for the crops and setting up an extraction unit. Thilak estimated that setting up an extraction unit would cost around LKR 2-2.5 million ($10,000-13,000 USD) – a costly affair.

Third Stop: Balaharuwa

At Balaharuwa, we met around 10 farmers who were affected by crop raids. Unlike the other two groups, these farmers didn’t know anything about citronella or lemongrass. We were pitching our proposal to a completely fresh audience, and of course, every novel idea is followed by many questions. The farmers wanted details for everything – the buyer, the price, the initial start-up help, etc. Sameera and Thilak explained that our proposal is to supplement their income by introducing an additional crop, and it shouldn’t be mistaken as a primary crop. After hours of discussion, we had seven of the 10 farmers willing to participate in the project, two on the fence and one who didn’t want any help.

Farmers patiently listening to our proposal. All of the female farmers pictured were willing to participate in the project.

It was a long and tiresome day, but we left feeling positive. Our first stop, Kithul Kotte, appeared to be the best starting point to implement the project since the farmers knew the process, already have experience with a similar crop, and most importantly, had access to an extraction unit.

Over the coming weeks, we are excited to begin working with these communities. Hopefully, these alternative crops will prove to a successful, and we can help reduce human-elephant conflict in the area.

Stay tuned for more! Please consider supporting this project by making a donation to Trunks & Leaves.

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