The experimental farm of the Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR) at Peruvannamuzhi is located bordering the Kakkayam forest division in the district. Elephants straying into its 95-hectare farm area, which is rich in water, vegetation and fruit –bearing trees, is almost a daily occurrence.
Marauding herds of the pachyderm have already destroyed large stretches of cash crop, fruit-bearing trees, and a variety of newly budded saplings on its campus. After unsuccessfully trying different methods, including electric fencing, erection of compound walls, and fixing of chilli ropes, the IISR authorities have now embarked on a rather eco-friendly way to keep the mammoth mammal at bay — dig a trench around the farm.
“We know that no wild animals recognise man-made boundaries. So, rather than confronting them, we wanted to coexist with them causing minimum trouble to their normal life,” says M. Anandaraj, IISR director, about their trench project.
It is very difficult to contain the movement of the herd when accompanied by calves. They turn violent at the sight of even a remote threat to their younger ones. The frequent elephant raids on the farm was a serious threat to the life of staff members living on the campus and to the valuable germplasm conserved there, says Dr. Anandaraj
Fences, according to him are not appropriate for all situations. Heavy investment, power supply problem, huge maintenance cost, growth of vegetation along the fence, theft and vandalism have resulted in failure of this method in most areas. “Elephants are clever animals and will enter the farm through any small section that is unprotected,” says Aboobacker Koya, Superintendent of the farm. The Institute also has tried electric fencing in some areas. “But there are habitual fence breakers among the elephants who are clever enough to cut the power supply by short circuiting the lines using wooden logs,” said Mr. Koya.
Using chilli rope fences, according to him, is suitable only for small farms. The chilli paste has to be applied on the rope, which is tied along the boundary of the farm, every 3 days and during the monsoon, it should be applied daily. “It is practically impossible to apply the paste on the rope stretching three km distance around the farm,” he said.
P A Mathew, former head of the farm, still remembers an “unbelievable” incident at the farm. It was few years ago. The elephants had already destroyed almost all the jackfruit trees at the farm. In order to save an exotic jackfruit plant variety in his collection, he had kept it inside a nursery shed.
“But a clever jumbo managed to grab it by crawling into the nursery on its knees as I helplessly watched it from a distance,” remembers Mr. Mathew. Though catapults, firecrackers or different sound devices can be tried, nothing is effective in a huge farm, said Mr. Mathew.
“At the end, digging a trench was the only solution before us,” said Dr. Anandaraj. The standard measurement of trenches recommended by the Forest Department and Assam Hathi Project, according to him, was 2.5 metres width on top, 1 metre at the bottom and 2 metres depth. “But we increased the measurements by half a metre in width to ensure that its purpose is served,” said the director.
The 3,185-metre trench, which covers almost two-thirds of the total farm area, required around 3,250 hours of excavation. Three excavators worked for three months and the Institute had to spend around Rs. 25 lakh on the project, he said.
Having understood the fact that elephants move out of the forest during the peak summer months, the institute has also constructed three ponds outside the trench to cater to the needs of the thirsty animals.