“It will be at least twice this bull's size; black and huge like an elephant,” says Ravichandran, pointing to the sturdy beast ploughing his fields in Azhahasthiripatti.
The Endapulli panchayat president is referring to the kaatu erumai (wild Indian bison) that has been on a rampage across the agricultural fields in about six panchayats within the Manapparai and Marungapuri Unions.
The region, with its red soil, supports a variety of crops such as cotton, groundnut, yellow chrysanthemum, red chilli, chick peas, black gram, tomatoes, lady's finger and paddy. Lured by the smell of the cash crops, these animals make their nocturnal raids, causing extensive damage to the crop, says Mr. Ravichandran.
Many despairing farmers have temporarily given up planting across the Ammachatram, Endapulli, Maniyankurichi, Pannapatti and Kanjanayakanpatti panchayats. “During summer, these wild animals come down from the hillocks encircling the villages in search of food and water and end up ravaging the crops,” says Mr. Ravichandran.
Most farmers cannot survive the losses caused by the wild beasts and opt to leave their fertile fields fallow, he says. Though the Indian bison doesn't seem to prefer paddy, rice fields often lie ruined under the giant footprints the animals leave behind after their raids for food.
The Forest Department's solar-powered electric fences, erected to prevent wild animals from straying onto the fields, are lying useless, according to villagers.
A group of children lead us to the fence through the thorny undergrowth at the edge of the forest to show what is left of the fence. Bent over and in a state of near-collapse, the fence seems to have been no match for the sheer strength of the Indian bison.
“The stray Indian bison broke these fences long ago with their horns,” says little Nadiya, while Iyyappan says most villagers stay awake through the night to shoo away the animals. “Nothing but fire can scare them away.”
According to Ravichandran, notwithstanding their night-time vigil, at least 40 to 50 per cent of their crops continue to get ruined.
When contacted, the response of the Forest Department was muted. I. Anwardeen, District Forest Officer, Tiruchi, says though there have been local “murmurs” (about damaged crops by roaming wild bison), his forest rangers are yet to record an official complaint from the farmers.
The official, however, concedes that the electric fencing put up in 2007 on a pilot basis proved ineffective, leading to the project getting dropped.
“Elephant-proof trenching is an alternative, but considering the length of the stretch, it can become a very expensive affair.” He estimates that the trenching can cost up to Rs.2 lakh per kilometre.
In his view, the advantages of taking up agriculture near the foothills far outweigh the perceived threats from wild animals. “The land near the foothills tends to have better soil and well water levels are comparatively higher.”
He feels devices to distract wildlife such as LED lights, reflectors and fencing of fields can divert the movement of the Indian bison. The Forest Department compensates the losses caused by wild animals to crops when a complaint is recorded.
With reference to the region, he says an anti-depredation team will be established to monitor the movement of ‘rogue' beasts and additional water sources created within the forests. With summer aggravating the straying habits of these wild animals, the team will also study the behavioural patterns of the animal and gather technical input that can be acted upon.