Syed Ghani Khan points to a spot in his fields where a pole, covered in an old T-shirt, is driven into the earth.
“I had sown rakthasali there,” he says, referring to a small and slender-grained red rice known for its nutritive and medicinal properties.
“But in just one single night everything was gone.”
Wild boars from the nearby forests — clearly undeterred by Khan’s scarecrow — had stolen into his village in Mandya district of Karnataka, and in the cover of darkness, cleaned his patch of rakthasali bare.
And while at it, the animals had also damaged the bunds in the field.
“It’s fine if they just eat and go, but they wreak havoc all around,” Khan says resignedly, pointing out the damage.
“I don’t think anyone in future will take up agriculture.”
The boar threat to crops
Khan is well known in the state’s agricultural world for his work on conserving traditional rice varieties as well as other crops such as the mango.
The walls of his home are adorned with awards and plaques given to him for his contributions to agriculture.
His Facebook wall tells a different story, however; it features photos of crops destroyed by wild boars and peacocks.
The attack on the rakthashali patch was just one instance of wild boar attacks on crops.
Of the 15 acres Khan owns, 10 acres are dedicated to grow paddy, of which one acre has been dedicated to conserve traditional varieties on the brink of extinction — like the rakthashali. It is a local variety from Dakshina Kannada and Kasargod region, that is slowly disappearing.
A ‘Green’ consequence
In the 1960s, PM Indira Gandhi heralded Green Revolution to increase food production so that India did not have to beg for food again. High-yielding varieties of wheat and rice replaced indigenous varieties. Self-sufficiency was achieved at the cost of local varieties.
In fact, since 1970s, India has lost over one lakh varieties of indigenous rice that were the result of thousands of years of evolution.
Currently, the number of local varieties stands at around 7,000 and not all of them are under cultivation.
Only few farmers like Syed Ghani Khan still cultivate it.
“No one — be it common people or the farmers — have any awareness about local varieties,” laments Khan.
The boar onslaught had, at least for the time being, stalled any progress Khan had made with the rice variety, another reason for frustration.
But rakthashali is not the only crop that he lost to boar attacks; last year, he lost most of the 1,000 banana plants that cost him ₹21,000.
Altogether, about 1.5 acres have been completely damaged.
Other farmers too have lost their coconut saplings to wild boars, like Khan’s neighbour Shivalinge Gowda, who believes Forest Department officials are not overly concerned by animals that don’t kill.
“They only care about [catching] leopards,” Gowda says.
Financial loss for farmers
Gowda’s complaint throws light on the bigger issue: The overall human-wildlife conflict that is also a story of financial ruin for farmers.
In its 2021-22 report, the Karnataka Forest Department says the state recorded over 30,000 cases of human-wildlife conflict, with over ₹27 crore being awarded in compensation.
This is the highest number of cases in the last decade which includes human deaths, injury, cattle death, disability, etc.
But majority of the cases concern crop damage.
More than compensation, farmers want a permanent solution to the conflict stresses Khan.
While wildlife attacks that make it to the news feature certain species such as the elephant, the tiger and the leopard, those by wild boars are quite common.
And though these don’t typically result in loss of human lives, the financial ruin that they cause is all too real.
This only adds to the many crises that the agriculture sector grapples with: Labour deficiency, water shortage, drop in yield, etc.
Khan abandoned cultivating groundnut in 2006-07, after wild boars destroyed five acres of the crop in a single night.
Since 2011-12, he has not cultivated sugarcane either.
Gowda too has given up on the crop, after realising that the output was not worth the effort.
He is now mulling over areca nut — which cannot be attacked by boars and is the plantation crop of Karnataka’s Malnad region and the coast.
Refuge that is plantation crops
Ironically, the very turn toward plantation crops may have contributed to the growth in numbers of wild boars.
Khan says it was a shortage in labour that has goaded many farmers to turn towards casuarina, grown as a cash crop for its timber, the price of which has been rising steadily over the past few years.
“It has a three-four years rotation period and does not need irrigation,” says Khan. “The farmers leave the trees alone, the boars breed in their shelter, and hide by day and attack the crops at night.”
Agrees Mohan Naik of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru; he is also an expert on vertebrate pest management and has studied wild boar attacks in Ramanagara district.
“Their mortality rate is down,” Naik says. “Earlier, their population was controlled by predators like tigers. Now, they have found shelter in eucalyptus, casuarina plantations.”
The phenomenon is similar to one in Odisha, where jackals and dogs hide behind casuarina trees to attack Olive Ridley turtles.
Dr Dhanya Bhaskar, currently an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, had recorded in 2007 how Mandya farmers were beginning to axe indigenous trees like Ficus (eg: Banyan) in exchange for economically lucrative and exotic species like eucalyptus and casuarina, resulting in “spread of intensive monoculture”.
“When I was there, wild boar was not an issue. Most farmers complained about small birds – that’s all,” says Bhaskar.
“It has been a decade, so maybe it’s time to go back.”
Killing boars: Is it legal?
The wild boar is a protected species under Schedule 3 of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and farmers need explicit permission from the forest department to kill them.
The Kerala government empowered the local bodies last year to kill wild boars.
In 2016-17, Karnataka too briefly allowed farmers to do so after facing pressure from legislators from the Old Mysore districts.
But, scientists and conservationists are quick to caution against any drastic measures.
“If given a free reign, farmers will wipe out the entire population of wild boars,” warns Naik.