Wildlife authorities in Assam are fighting wild elephants with hot chilli peppers to keep at bay hungry pachyderms from rampaging human settlements and farmlands, officials said on Sunday.
To minimise increasing man-elephant conflict, forest rangers have erected rope fencings smeared with grease and Bhot Jolokia, the world's hottest chilli, near Balipara in Sonitpur district, about 210 kms north of Assam's main city of Guwahati.
"We have put this hot fencing on an experimental basis and the results are very positive with elephant depredation in the area definitely decreasing," Assam Forest and Wildlife Minister Rockybul Hussain told IANS.
Assam has India's largest population of Asiatic elephants, estimated at around 5,300, according to a 2002 wildlife census.
Elephants have killed 248 people in Assam in the past five years, while 268 elephants have died during the same period, many of them victims of retaliation by angry humans, said a recent wildlife department report.
Villagers often poison the marauding elephants while in the past they drove them away by beating drums or bursting firecrackers.
Shrinking forests and encroachments on traditional elephant territory by people have forced the animals to stray from their habitats into human settlements in the quest of food, often with deadly results.
"Grease and hot pepper oil made from Bhot Jolokia are mixed and applied to the rope fencing. The grease acts as a waterproof and the moment elephants make contact with the string it causes irritation to the animals," the minister said.
The ingenious method was successfully tried in the Niassa province of Mozambique, a region known for man-elephant conflict.
"We have asked the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to replicate our pilot project of chilli fencing in a big way in areas vulnerable to elephant depredation. We have told WWF that the Assam government was ready to assist in all possible ways if such a project was launched like the one in Mozambique," Hussain said.
The Bhot Jolokia, recognised by the Guinness World Records as the world's hottest chilli, clocks 1,001,304 Scoville units, almost twice as hot as the previous reigning champ, the Red Savina habanero at about 580,000 units.
The Scoville scale, developed by a pharmacist in 1912, is a measure of the ratio of water required to neutralise the pungency of a chilli pepper. An average jalapeno, used widely in salsa, measures only about 10,000 heat units.
The chilli grows mostly on hilly terrain and is considered a staple of every meal in the northeast. "We have also chalked out a massive plan to cultivate Bhot Jolokia around areas surrounding farmlands where elephants frequent," the minister said.
Authorities have earlier used power fences to ward off rampaging elephants, but the animals proved too smart.
"Elephants tore branches from trees and stomp on the electric fences to break it apart. The idea was shelved with the elephants turning out to be very clever," Hussain said.