Thread Barrier and World’s Hottest Chilli to Keep Asian Elephants At Bay


By Shib Shankar Chatterjee and Rahul Karmakar

What does it take to stop a herd of hungry elephants each (around) 03-metres tall and middling over 04- tons in weight off paddy fields? Apparently, it’s a thread as thick as a fishing line and not nearly as strong.

Elephant 1
Elephants enter the human habitation at Northeast Indian State, Assam for food.

Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee

Officials of the Indian Assam State Forest Department (Wildlife Division)said, “Due to massive ‘illegal deforestation and illegal encroachment’ wild elephants of the eastern Indian State are facing a major food scarcity and other problems, which force the wild elephants to come out to the low lands from the hills and have created man-elephant conflict.

The peasants and common people are terrorized by this. Farmers say they are adversely affected and face problems starting their crop (Rabi) cultivation for which the wild elephants come out to paddy fields searching for food, every year.

Elephant 2
Elephants enter the human habitation at Northeast Indian State, West Bengal teagarden areas for food.

Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee

According to the Indian Forest Department, “In Indian States, around 39 elephants were killed by trains in Assam during the years 1997 to 2007, while in the same period, 24 elephants were killed for the same reason in West Bengal, 21, in Uttarakhand, 15 in Jharkhand, around 15 in Tamilnadu, around 5 in Uttar Pradesh (UP), 4 in Orissa, about 3 in Kerala, and about 2 in Karnataka in 01-number”.

Destruction by the elephants reached such a degree that able-bodied males of these villages would invariably pack off the women, children and the elderly to safer places by the start of autumn, generally the time, when elephants come down the hills of the aforesaid Karbi Anglong district. This year, however, has been an exception thanks to the ‘thread trick’ employed by a local wildlife group named Green Guard.

Elephant 3
An Asiatic elephant has died in a paddy field at Northeast Indian State, West Bengal.

Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee

“We have seen and then utilized this particular idea from a test at Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe, Africa 4 years ago. But, while wires and ‘electronic bells’ are used in the Zimbabwe project, we chose threads and vacuum horns to cut down on the cost”, disclosed Seemanta Goswami, a Green-Guard activist, who further revealed that the experiment has proved to be practical and successful.

The Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam, M. C. Malakar admitted, “The man-elephant conflict has been getting out of hand, and cost-effective experiments to prevent such conflicts are welcome. The Indian Forest department has been encouraging new strategies to cut down human-elephant conflicts.”

Elephant 4
Around 7 wild elephants were killed and one seriously injured in the night, when a speeding train hit the animals, while the elephants were crossing railway tracks near Binnaguri in Jalpaiguri district of Northeast Indian State, West Bengal, on 22nd September.

Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee

Electric fencing is a method sometimes used to control elephants, but it is no shock for Assam State’s prowling elephants. So, the Government of India departments of the Forest & Environment Ministry in Assam State sector are erecting ‘hot (Chili) fences’ around paddy fields and agricultural farms in a bid to decrease man-elephant clashes.

A few years back, in October 2006, the Assam State Forest Department (IASFD) used ‘Threads to keep elephants at bay’ but no fruitful results come out. After a year, in November 2007, the department had another idea. They used the World’s Hottest Chili to keep Asian Elephant at bay, and diminish man-elephant conflicts.

IASFD, in association with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India, started ‘chili fencing’ around the cultivated areas in the Balipara area of Sonitpur district of Assam, which is a hot bed of elephant activity and highly sensitive for Asiatic Elephants and their corridor. The chili fencing is a cheaper, safer and eco-friendly substitute for ‘electric fencing’.

Chili fencing is made by coating wires with powdered Bhoot Jolokia. Bhoot Jolokia is an agricultural product (ethnic chili) of Assam. Bhoot – an ethnic term for anything with a Bhutanese origin – Jolokia, which is the world’s ‘hottest’ chili that measures about 1,001,304 scoville heat units, almost twice as hot as the previous reigning beater, the Red Savina habanero at around 580,000 units according to the record books.

The hot chili wires are then strung around elephant-attracting paddy-fields.

Note: In 1912, the Scoville scale, developed by a pharmacist, is a calculation of the relative amount of water needed to neutralise the tanginess of a chilli pepper. An average jalapeno, applied extensively in salsa, is assessed around 10,000 heat units.

The Forest & Environment Minister for Assam State Government, Rockybul Hussain informed the Indian Assam State Assembly (IASA), on 13th November, 2007, “It is fact that our department has begun work on this particular method – ‘chili-smeared rope fencing’. This chili, which is locally known as – Bhoot Jolokia is too hot even for the Asian Jumbos and our department is banking on the achievement of this research for scrutiny of the man-animal conflicts. Grease and hot pepper oil prepared from Bhoot Jolokia are mixed and applied to the rope fencing. The grease acts as a waterproof and the instant elephants make contact with the thread or cord, it causes annoyance to the animals”.

In the past, the peoples of Northeast Indian hamlets drove the elephants away by ‘beating drums’ or ‘bursting firecrackers’. However, now the villagers often poison, electrocute or trap the marauding elephants (in a big hole, covered with leaves and trees). However, this inventive technique was effectively used in the Niassa province of Republic of Mozambique in Africa, a region identified as a man-elephant conflict zone.

The Indian Assam State Assembly (IASA) has discussed man-elephant conflict, but few legislators, especially Congress-I, raised the issue of the repeated elephant attacks on Majuli, the world’s largest populated river island in the mighty red river Brahmaputra, originating from Tasangpo in the Himalayas.

It is fact that the ‘Man-elephant conflict’ has taken a serious turn due to : a) Large-scale illegal encroachment, b) Destruction of elephant habitats, c) Hindrance on Elephant migrating routes due to illegal human habitations, d) Makes tea-gardens, railway-tracks and paddy-fields or various agricultural lands on Elephant corridors and e) Huge forest destruction for jhum and other cultivation, which has created food scarcity for this peaceful animal, et cetera.

“Our department has asked the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to copy our pilot project of chili fencing in a massive way in dense elephant population areas, which are in danger of elephant depredation. We have even assured the WWF that the Indian Assam State Government was ready to help in all possible ways if such a project was started like the one in Mozambique……”.

“We are trying our best to handle the situation. The dilemma is beyond conservative control. We have already sought assist from international specialists about the same, but the problem is no political parties to help to erase the illegal encroachment from elephant corridors for their vote-bank politics. It has been reported that many of the Indian Assam state’s legislators are accused of settling illegal migrants (specially foreign national)s on the reserve, proposed reserve forests, forestland as well as the animal corridors for ‘territorial gains’. Even, the poachers with illegal connivance with some opportunist Gaon Burah (that is, village headmen) have illegally caught and sold the elephants to tea gardens and other private organizations, like zoos, et cetera”, claimed the environmentalists.

Notably, Northeast India has the world’s densest population of wild Asiatic Elephants. On 31st August, 2010, the Indian Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh said, “There were over 25,000 elephants in the country, including 3,500 in captivity in zoos and temples, particularly in southern and north-eastern parts of the country. In this context, the Wildlife (Protection) Act would also be amended to pave the way for setting up of National Elephants Conservation Authority (NECA) on the lines of the NTCA, which has been constituted for tiger conservation, as suggested by a 12-member panel board.”

It is fact that India is home to an estimated 25,000 wild Asiatic elephants but their numbers are fast depleting due to poaching, loss of habitat and also train accidents, particularly in eastern and northeastern states. It is a fact that the elephants are considered sacred in Hindu-majority India and officially on 22ndd October, 2010, the Indian Environment & Forest Ministry declared them a ‘national heritage animal’ that should be given the same protection as the endangered tiger.

A notification was also issued by the Environment Ministry as recommended by the task force on elephant project and approved by the standing committee of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) in its meeting on 13th October, 2010. The Indian Government will create an Elephant Task Force (ETF) to protect and secure the future life of this unique creature.

It is also noted that on 22nd September, 2010, the Hindu community of India celebrated the end of an 11-day annual festival marking the birth of ‘Lord Ganesha’, the revered elephant-headed god.

Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman & The Telegraph Contributor-cum-Correspondent from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of South Asia, specially, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar.