A cluster of villages in central Assam’s Nagaon district has found a way of keeping crop-raiding elephants off their crops — by setting aside land to create a meal zone for them.Most farmers of 12 villages in the Ronghang-Hatikhuli area of central Assam’s Nagaon district do not have enough land to sustain their families. But they donated 203 bighas (roughly 33 hectares) of community land and took turns to plant paddy exclusively for the elephants that often come down the hills of the adjoining Karbi Anglong district.‘Jumbo kheti’The “jumbo kheti (cropland)” has been envisaged as the last line of mealy defence against some 350-400 elephants that have often paid for venturing too close to human habitations. Five of them were electrocuted by illegal electric fences in the last 16 months while half a dozen, injured by spears and arrows, died in the jungles up the hills.About 10 km from the paddy field, toward the hills, is an 8-hectare plantation of Napier grass that 35 reformed hunters have grown for the elephants. This plantation is on land belonging to a tea estate.The locals have also planted saplings of 2,000 outenga (elephant apple), 1,500 jackfruit and 25,000 banana plants on barren land between the paddy field and grass plantation. The three-step plantation has a common thread — environmentalist Binod Dulu Bora and the NGO Hatibondhu, meaning ‘friends of elephants’, he is associated with.“Growing paddy for elephants was the idea of Pradip Kumar Bhuyan, the director of our NGO. We had several meetings with the villagers and managed to convince them by saying they would be setting an example for the world to follow toward reducing man-animal conflicts,” Mr. Bora told The Hindu on Monday.Feeding patternOnce convinced that the experiment would save much of their crops, the villagers decided to donate land and labour to grow paddy for the elephants. Forest Department officials chipped in to provide solar electric fences around the crop area.“Work on the paddy field began less than two months ago. The fence will be withdrawn once the paddy ripens for the elephants to feed on. By mapping the area and studying the feeding pattern, we calculated that the elephants would take 20-22 days to finish the paddy in their demarcated zone,” Mr. Bora said.The nearest fields where the villagers have grown crops for themselves and for trade are 5 km away. “By the time the elephants finish the crop grown for them, we will have harvested much of our own. We think the elephants will turn back if they don’t find crop in our spaces,” said Dyansing Hanse, one of the two village headmen.The Ronghang-Hatikhuli area is inhabited by the Karbi and Adivasi communities.“The fruit trees will take time to grow. But the elephants can feed on the Napier grass, a tropical forage crop that grows fast, if they return to the hills. They have already partaken of the grass six times,” Mr Bora said, adding that 35 hunters who had given up hunting four years ago have been maintaining the grass plantation. ‘Unprecedented’Jiten Kro, the other headman said the villagers had been living in dread of the elephants for years. He hoped the experiment would go a long way in ensuring co-existence with the animals. “We are happy to have given back some space to the elephants through a project that I believe is unprecedented,” he said.