Of Oranges And Elephants

It will take a couple more years before these trees form a fence to keep elephants away.

Kshama Ranawana

Oranges to keep elephants at bay!

That is the grand plan of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Society, which initiated the Project OrangeElephant in the Wasgamuwa forest reserve a few years ago.

The issue at hand is the continued struggle between elephants and humans for space. As man encroaches on jungles, wild animals lose their habitat.  Seeking food, elephants raid villages, destroying houses and harvest.  While most farmers use firecrackers, etc. to scare the animal away, they are often also shot and killed or maimed.

The decades long conflict has seen no winners; it has only resulted in fear, anger and desperation on the part of the villagers and  hunger on the part of elephants that raid not only the harvested land, but also enter houses in search of rice stored therein.

Many a ruse has been tried to keep elephants from entering the villages, but they have always found a way in.  So far, installing electric wiring to fence in the villages has been the most successful.

Elephants raid villages in search of food, when they cannot find enough to eat in the wilds.
Elephants raid villages in search of food, when they cannot find enough to eat in the wilds.

Chandima Fernando, SLWCS Ecologist, whose PhD studies are on the human-elephant conflict, says that the decision to use oranges as a deterrent, is the result of a three-day feeding trial conducted on captive elephants at the Dehiwela Zoo.  The trial concluded that the least preferred food of the elephants were lemons and oranges.

“While oranges keep the elephants from raiding villages, it also serves as income generation for farmers,’ he points out.

The oranges that are planted bordering the forest end of the land are the famous Bibile variety. Each farmer is generally given 10 plants initially, and if they plant the trees and tend them as advised, they get more.  SLWCS has a contractor who provides them with the Bibile orange saplings.

Using oranges to deter elephants is not a new concept, says Fernando, pointing out that village elders mention that the ‘dehi weta thibbe alinta”, (the lime fence was for elephants). However, over time this practice has been discontinued. There are twelve villages in the Wasagamuwa forest reserve area participating in the project at the moment.

Farmers who joined the project at the initial stage  now earn around Rs. 27,000 from three trees.  The trick is not to harvest the first crop says Fernando, who explains that by doing so, the tree is able to preserve more nutrients.  “While many farmers took the saplings, not all were successful in getting a yield as they neglected the plants,” he adds.

SLWCS follows a strict policy on who gets to plant oranges now.  “Their land must border the forest, be close to a water source and face the threat of marauding elephants,’ says Fernando who tours the farms regularly to ensure the plants are cared for and to resolve any issues the farmers’ face. He also helps the farmers find markets for the oranges. The plants must be watered every four days, and the SLWCS helps by arranging for their volunteers to weed, inspect the trees and water them.  This is a huge help to farmers who have other crop to manage as well. “The orange plants must be checked all the time, to ensure there are no lime butterfly eggs on the leaves, which can easily destroy the crop.”

Chandima Fernando helps with advise on tending the plants, and finding a market for the oranges.
Chandima Fernando helps with advise on tending the plants, and finding a market for the oranges.

The trees are planted in a zig-zag pattern to create a thicker fence.

The crop takes two and a half years to harvest, therefore, farmers need to have patience. Some farmers, who do not realise the benefit of growing the trees have given up, but many others have remained with the project.  Each village has formed “an orange farmers’ society” that agrees on the price. The society also does away with using a middle man to sell their oranges.

So far, elephants have left the orange trees alone.

At the start of the project SLWCS partnered with a Grocery chain to sell the oranges, however, that has not been successful.  SLWCS is now looking for alternate methods to help the farmers market their produce.

The success of the project depends on how well the community responds; if they show commitment to tending the plants until they are able to sell the fruit, half the battle will be won.  And with time, the farm lands will sport a thick fence of orange trees, to effectively keep elephants within their own habitats.

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