A group of people has gathered around a young man in the village. They watch keenly as he mixes an odd concoction of ingredients. A little cow dung, some rice husk, chili and tobacco - all these go into a large pot and are mixed thoroughly. The man, a project officer at WWF-India, is demonstrating to villagers the technique that can help them protect their crop and belongings. He will later mould this mixture into bricks, which will be sun dried for about four days and finally burnt to release a strong odor – to keep elephants at bay!
House damaged by wild elephants
This is a recipe for mitigating disaster!
In the tea garden areas of Sonitpur, Assam, the smell of food often draws wild elephants to villages, where these animals end up raiding farms and even kitchens! Rendered homeless because of deforestation and lack of food resources, the elephants venture into human habitats, where encounters with humans oftentimes prove dangerous for both man and animal. However, where the smell of food, ripening fruits and even rice beer attracts elephants to human habitations, the repulsive odor released by the chili-tobacco bricks forces the animals to return - saving not only food and belongings but also human and elephant lives.
The practice, as simple as it may seem, has worked successfully in various regions afflicted by raiding elephants. Unlike other methods, such as driving back wild elephants with the help of kunkis, this method is safer and does not require direct confrontation with the animal. This, in turn, means fewer injuries for both man and animal and reduced risk to their lives.
Demonstrations of Chilli based deterrents
However, the direction of the wind remains a major determinant in deciding the success of this practice. The method also requires a considerable amount of labour from villagers who have to first collect the ingredients and then grind them together to prepare the mixture. Keeping these drawbacks of the method in mind, WWF-India gives training to local communities – instructing them on various methods that can safely drive elephants away. The chili tobacco method, however, still proves to be crucial in mitigating human-elephant conflict as it can be easily adopted by people and the mixture can be kept prepared in advance for cases of emergency. The method also does not require expert supervision or involve high maintenance costs.
WWF staff, to train people in this simple practice, has demonstrated the method across areas afflicted by human-elephant conflict. Workshops held to educate communities, also help people understand the consequences of retaliatory killings and the importance of practices such as these. “The sheer simplicity with which people can save their food and belongings from wild elephants is what makes this technique so successful. The method is a home remedy to save lives and protect wildlife – all the ingredients needed are easily available and affordable,” says Hiten Baishya, Coordinator - Elephant Conservation, WWF-India.
Similar to this recipe is another which can be used effectively and for the same purpose. In this method, rice husk and cow dung (from the previous recipe) are replaced by green leaves and hay. The mixture is then burned to produce slow smoke, which works as an excellent elephant repellent.
“Whenever an elephant is killed - whether to save villagers’ lives, crops or belonging - it becomes an ominous symbol of the danger that faces our forests and wildlife. It’s only natural for people living in these regions to harbor some enmity towards the animal – that is at times responsible for major losses. The chili-tobacco smoke and other methods, however, have taught us that it is possible to live in harmony with them and helped reduce villagers’ resentment towards the animal,” says Khagen Das, a resident of Gamani village, Sonitpur.