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Do You Know Lemon Tree Fences Can Keep Elephants Away From Crops

Experts suggest biofences can be viable if the biological barrier does not obstruct vital elephant mobility between habitat parts.

Chintu Das
Herd Of Elephants
Herd Of Elephants

On a November morning six years ago, Sambhar Hazarika saw something that left him speechless. His farmland, which was only a few kilometers from his home, had been ravaged — the cowshed he had built had been smashed to the ground the night before, and his crops had been consumed by a herd of elephants.

This, however, was not an uncommon sight. Hazarika, who is in his 60s, is one of several farmers on the Sauraguri chapori (riverine island in the Brahmaputra river basin), which is about 23 kilometres from Assam's Sivasagar city, who have been harmed by the human-elephant conflict for over a decade.

The holy mausoleum Ajan Pir Dargah is a five-minute ride from Hazarika's agricultural property, which spans two bighas (approximately one acre). Hazarika plants a wide range of veggies that he sells in the neighbourhood market. Cattle raising and rabi crop farming are the two main sources of income for farmers in this area. Floods have made paddy cultivation impossible.

Scarcity Of Food

This confrontation, according to Hiren Dutta, a farmer and animal conservationist who lives in the nearby village of Dikhowmukh, is caused by elephants not having enough food. "Had the sandbars not been taken over by people, it would have been an ideal location for elephants to grow food." He went on to say, "The forest department ought to do something about it."

The previous four years, on the other hand, have been markedly different. There have been no elephant incursions, and the crops are doing well. The explanation for this is because lemon trees that were raised to look like a fence grew into biofences.

When researchers from the Guwahati-based NGO Aaranyak came across the Sauraguri farmers while analysing the distribution pattern and intensity of human-elephant interactions in the Brahmaputra river basin in 2019, they advised planting lemon trees around farmlands as a community-based remedy.

The organization's experience in establishing similar biofences in villages near Manas National Park in western Assam was used to propose the biofencing idea.

500 lemon seedlings were distributed to five farmers in Sauraguri, including Hazarika and Das, according to project head Bibhuti Lahkar. The saplings were planted in three rows in a zigzag manner, with no space between them, so that when they grow larger, they will be firmly interwoven.

Hazarika's lemon trees have developed into formidable elephant deterrents in just four years. Elephants are repelled by the thorns of these lemon trees and the smell of lemons, and the lemons themselves provide a source of money for the farmers. Hazarika currently collects up to 900-1,000 lemons per week, which he sells to buyers who resell them in the surrounding communities.

"I sell lemons for Rs 5 per piece during the off-season, and Rs 2 to 3 per piece during the high season," Hazarika explained. "All these years, I've taken good care of them." We were saved by the lemon trees. Elephants no longer bother us." Nitul, Jibon, Kamal, and Buddheswar Das, the other four farmers, concur with Hazarika.

Despite accepting the lemon seedlings, the farmers were sceptical that the plan would work. Hiren, one of Aaranyak's 14 volunteers, has played a critical role in the project's success. He educated and persuaded the sceptics to give the biofence concept a try.

Skeptical But Worked

"At first, we were sceptical. "However, Hiren da stressed the significance of lemon fencing around our farmland," Nitul, the youngest of the five farmers, added. "I'm glad we followed his advice and looked after the saplings. We've been doing well financially."

"Lemon trees as elephant barriers could serve as a model for other regions dealing with human-elephant conflict," Hiren Dutta said. "An alternative to solar fencing is biofencing. It is both human and animal-friendly."

Due to a lack of systematic investigations, conservation measures in the riverine areas of the Brahmaputra in Assam, where as many as 150 to 200 elephants travel, are still pretty poor, says Lahkar. Elephants in the Brahmaputra river basin frequently migrate to the Majuli district from the north bank of the river. They return the same way they came.

This elephant herd walks down the Brahmaputra's north bank, crosses the river, and reaches the Dehingmukh Reserve Forest on the river's edge. The forest can no longer support this big elephant herd due to widespread forest damage.

So they wander from Dehingmukh to Panidihing Bird Sanctuary, which likewise lacks enough habitat for this elephant species, and then to Sivasagar (Disangmukh, Dikhowmukh) and Jorhat district (Jhanjimukh, Nimati, Molai forest) before returning to Majuli, according to Lahkar.

During this time of migration, elephants cause damage to crops and agricultural lands, resulting in conflicts with the villagers who live in such areas. Villagers retaliate by causing harm to elephants.

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