COIMBATORE: The relentless summer that seamlessly followed an unforgiving drought has forced wild elephants in the western region of Tamil Nadu to change food habits, researchers have found. So desperate are they now that they have now started eating Agave Americana, commonly known as maguey or century plant, which is widely used as bio-fence to prevent them from entering the agricultural fields and human habitations in neighbouring Kerala.
The elephants in the region usually feed on acacia plants, which, however, has been affected by the failure of the last monsoon. The forest has become parched, with much less availability of food sources. An adult elephant requires about 150-200 kg food, and 100-150 litres of water a day, say experts.
“The animals that come out of the forest in search of water and food are now eating agave, though farmers and public had planted it as a fence to prevent elephants from entering,” said B Ramakrishnan, assistant professor of wildlife biology, Government Arts College, Udagamandalam, noting how the prevailing dry season has in fact resulted in the rapid increase of agave, a sturdy Mexican plant.
This change in food habit was observed by one of his PhD scholars, M Ilakkia, who is researching on the effect of monsoon failure on foodplant preference by Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Coimbatore and Gudalur forests divisions.
It is the sharp thorns on the edges of its leaves that made Agave a preferred bio-fencing material against wild animals.
“Eating agave will not harm elephants, as they have the capacity to carefully select its food. The animals get the same nutrients available in acacia, like calcium, magnesium, potassium, proteins, carbohydrate, fat and fibre etc.,” added Ramakrishnan.
The severe drought has had an impact on wildlife, with the animals forced to migrate to what could only be described as relatively greener patches.
“They have to move on, starting from Nilgiris to Sathymangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) through Coimbatore to get enough food and water. Several elephants are also using Tamil Nadu and Kerala forests,” said the professor.
Meanwhile, the study on the impact of monsoon failure on elephants’ food habits will be submitted next year, in which the researchers are planning to recommend against planting agave as bio-fence. “It will not mitigate man-elephant conflict,” Ramakrishnan said.