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Paddy Field Electric Fencing

The main livelihood of the majority of people in rural Sri Lanka is paddy farming. Raiding of paddy fields by elephants is a major component of human-elephant conflict (HEC), which places a heavy economic burden on farmers and is a significant contributor to rural poverty. Effective prevention of paddy raiding by elephants is central to mitigating the HEC and allowing elephants to range outside protected areas.

One of the main tools that are available to prevent crop raiding by elephants is electric fencing. However construction of permanent electric fences around paddy fields causes a problem in their maintenance and is detrimental to elephants.

Maintenance
One of the most importance factors that determine the life time and success of an electric fence is its level of maintenance. Many paddy fields in Sri Lanka are irrigated from small rain-fed tanks. Such fields are usually cultivated only in the main cultivation season of ‘Maha’, during the north-east monsoon from about November to April. Therefore such fields lie fallow for about 8 months of the year. Some fields may also not be cultivated at all in some years, depending on the rainfall and may lie fallow for years. Fields cultivated with water from irrigation development schemes maybe cultivated in both the Maha season and the secondary cultivation season or ‘Yala’ from about May to September. In many cases, the extent of Yala cultivation is less than that of Maha and only a part of a tract of paddy is cultivated in Yala due to shortfall of water. Even if an entire tract is cultivated two seasons in a year, there are 2-3 months in between the seasons when the tract is not cultivated and lies fallow.

During the cultivation period the farmers construct huts in the fields and live there and guard the paddy. During the fallow periods they live away from the fields in their villages. Therefore, if permanent electric fencing is constructed around paddy fields there is no one to maintain them during the fallow season. The fences leak current and become ineffective. Elephants tend to break such fences around fields where there are no people. Once elephants get used to breaking such fences they also will break well-maintained fences, leading to increased HEC.

Impact on Elephants
Fallow paddy fields are important foraging areas for elephants in many parts of Sri Lanka. They feed on the leftover harvest as well as the grasses and herbs that grow plentifully in fallow paddy fields. Fallow paddy fields are also commonly used by elephants to travel between forest patches without any conflict with humans. Especially in the north-west, elephants are greatly restricted in their movements during the cultivation season but as soon as the fields are harvested, a large area is opened out to them. The use of fallow paddy fields is especially critical for the survival of elephant herds. Constructing permanent fencing around paddy fields will deny the elephants an important resource they now enjoy without causing conflict. It will also block their movement paths during the fallow periods. As a result elephants will be forced to raid more in order to survive and they will be forced to break the fences or go through village areas in their movement from one area to another. Therefore construction of permanent fencing around paddy fields will lead to escalation of HEC.

Temporary Paddy Field Fences
In order to address this issue we have developed a system of ‘paddy field fences’. It consists of fence posts made of GI tubes. The wire is directly in contact with the post, so the post is energized, which makes it more difficult for an elephant to break the fence. The GI posts are prevented from earthing by placing them in a PVC tube which is sealed with an end cap. The farmers put up the fence around their tract of paddy when cultivation begins and on the day of harvest they take it down, take it home and store it till the next growing season. The elephants are then free to use the fallow fields and the paddy is protected from elephants during the cultivation season.

We have piloted such temporary ‘paddy-field fences’ around 10 paddy fields in the South over the past two years and found them to be very successful.

We are now working with the Ministry and the Department of Agrarian Services to introduce the concept to the north-west. We hope that its successful demonstration will encourage the government to establish a program to assist farmers to put up ‘paddy-field fences’.

Read also about permanent electric fences for villages...