- The Indian crested porcupine, a protected species, is entering saffron fields in Jammu and Kashmir and damaging the crop.
- Experts estimate that in recent years nearly 5,000 hectares of land growing saffron has been impacted by porcupines that are coming into fields in search of food due to loss of their natural habitats.
- Pampore in Kashmir Valley produces 90 percent of India’s saffron and about 86 percent of its total area is under saffron production, as per last estimates.
As their natural habitats are reducing, porcupines in Jammu and Kashmir are entering saffron fields in search of food and damaging the prized crop.
Saffron farmers in the Kashmir Valley say the population of protected Indian crested porcupine (Hystrix indica) has increased in the Valley over the last few years, as forest cover is reducing and saffron farms are impacted.
India is the second largest producer of saffron after Iran. The saffron produced in Kashmir region is regarded as the best in quality, making it the costliest spice in the world. Producing about seven percent of the world’s saffron, much of the saffron comes from Pampore in Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Pampore produces 90 percent of India’s saffron. With a spread of 32,000 hectares as of five years ago, 86 percent of Pampore’s total area was under saffron production.
Though there have been no recent surveys, experts estimate that saffron spread over nearly 5,000 hectares has been lost because of porcupines entering the fields.
The farmers are worried. “We sincerely hope for some solution. There was a time when the least a farmer would produce was between 30 to 40 kg, but now, the produce is very little, as little as between 5 to 10 kg every year,” says Nisar Ahmad Kongwani, a farmer and saffron trader.
Bashir Ahmad Elahi, chief scientist at Advanced Research Station for Saffron and Seed Spices in Pampore, says, “Porcupine is the greatest threat to saffron cultivation in Pampore and to India’s position as the second largest producer of costliest spice in the world.”
Losing its habitat
The Indian crested porcupine is hunted to save crops, for its meat and its quills that are considered to possess medicinal properties. To protect it from these threats, the species has been upgraded to protection under Schedule I, from a previous Schedule IV, as per the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2022, which is in force since April this year.
The natural habitat of the porcupine is hilly terrains and forest peripheries with shrubs and rocks. It consumes berries, tree barks, nuts, vegetables, leaves and even grass.
This natural habitat though has reduced in recent times with human-induced activities as well as with the impacts of climate change. According to Global Forest Watch, the undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir lost 4.09 thousand hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2022, equivalent to a 0.38% decrease in tree cover since 2000.
The town of Pampore, which lies at the foothills of the Zabarwan mountain range, had hills covered with forests, before housing colonies, industrial estates, and military encampments started to pop up here. With the loss of habitat, porcupines started migrating away from the forests to rural areas in Kashmir and into saffron farms where they found a stable food source.
This, in turn, has started a battle for survival between a protected animal and the world’s costliest crop.
Lack of data on porcupine population
Shahnawaz Ahmad Shah, Nodal Officer at National Saffron Mission says, “Though, the estimation of damage is not possible, but the damage is huge, especially in the villages adjoining the hills, including Chandhara, Shalli, Zantrag, Wuyan, and Balhama.”
“We do not have any information regarding the population size of porcupines. There has been no survey yet. The big hurdle is that the area is huge. The porcupines have migrated from the adjoining forest areas such as Khrew, Shar, Wuyan, etc. Expanding villages and setting up of housing colonies following the 2014 floods which inundated most of the Srinagar city, has been a major cause of forest habitat loss in Pampore. Even a large industrial area has been set up in the last few years in nearby Khonmoh which previously used to be a habitat of forest animals,” Shah added.
Since saffron fields are not fenced or covered, a ready and undefended food source has helped in the sudden explosion of the porcupine populations, turning the saffron fields fallow or forcing farmers to switch crops. In the villages of Chandara, Dussu and Balhama, huge tracts of land can be seen left fallow, or brought under mustard or vegetable production. Many saffron farmers have ditched the ‘red gold’ for almonds and apples as well.
Saffron is a labour-intensive crop and the corms, once planted, give saffron flowers for a minimum of 10 years. Since the porcupines attack only the corms, planting new corms becomes challenging due to two reasons: first, the corms are hard to get and even when available, they are expensive; secondly, planting the corms is labour intensive work and there is no guarantee they will last, given the risk of crop damage by porcupines.
Ghulam Hassan Mir from Chandhara village of Pampore, a sixth-generation saffron farmer is of the opinion that the glorious days of saffron are already over. “There were days when you would see saffron everywhere, but now you see people planting vegetables, mustard and other crops. The major reason is the porcupine attacks on saffron corms. There are many government agencies dedicated to the preservation of saffron, but none of them have come forward to help in eradicating or controlling the porcupine populations that have wreaked havoc on our fields,” Mir adds.
Haja, a septuagenarian woman whose family has been into saffron cultivation for more than 200 years, says that many in her family have stopped cultivating saffron and shifted to vegetable and mustard farming. “The last five years have been a disaster for the farmers in Pampore,” Haja adds, “Especially for those farmers whose farms are close to the forests. Most of the saffron fields in Chandhara have been destroyed. Once the porcupines eat the corms, there is no way to fight it. We cannot kill the porcupines since it is illegal to harm them.”
Nisar Ahmad Kongwani says that the farmers would block the entrances of the caves with smoke and fire to chase away the porcupines from the deep caverns that they have dug in and around the town. However, says Kongwani, “the population has greatly increased now, rendering such efforts ineffective and warranting large scale changes.”
During winter, with a shortage of food sources for the porcupine and the farmers’ inability to frequently visit the fields, the number of cases where porcupines enter and damage the farms increases. The farmers do not harm the animal since it is protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act and the government has not come up with any decisive plan to reduce the rodent attacks on the saffron corms. Schedule I species have the highest level of protection under the Act and hunting or trade is forbidden.
Officials of the National Saffron Mission have verbally recommended to the farmers that they plant iris plants, which is regarded as a rodent repellent, in saffron fields. However, the farmers have not found this useful and the problem is getting worse. Farmers have tried other methods, including net fencing, but the porcupines dug below the nets to enter the fields.
“Various government agencies including the Wildlife Department and agricultural universities are looking for a solution, but thus far, we have not reached any conclusion on how to control the porcupine threat. Unless the scientific community does not give a viable and practically applicable solution, the government cannot take any concrete decision,” National Saffron Mission’s Shahnawaz told Mongabay-India.
Regional Wildlife Warden of Kashmir, Abdul Rashid Naqash, says that as of now, he is not aware of any official collaboration between the government institutions to tackle the porcupine issue. “However, if the farmers or any other agency approach for help, we will not back off. Preventive measures are the only available option,” he adds.
However, according to Shahnawaz, they have already taken up this issue with the Wildlife Department.
Banner image:Farmer Ghulam Hassan examines the feathery shell of the damaged saffron corms and a quill that is left behind by the porcupines following a nocturnal attack on his field. Photo by Abrar Mattoo.