The distinct threat to saffron production has been subconsciously neglected for almost one decade, and this threat is from none other than a type of rodent called Porcupine, coined as Draen in Kashmiri lexicon. The type of porcupine found in Asia is the Indian crested porcupine whose scientific name is Hystrix Indica. The rodent has a defense mechanism in the form of modified hairs called spines or quills on the dorsal posterior side of the body, more prominent on the tapering end. The spines help the animal keep at bay any threat of predation or attack. Whenever a porcupine perceives a potential threat, it rattles its quills to produce a warning sound as a defense against any danger. It inhabits a wide range of habitats, but most commonly lives in hillsides, bushes, and rock crevices in forest areas. The rodent is a herbivore animal by its food habit, commonly feeding on leaves, stems, roots, tubers, vegetables, barks, grass, and so on. The wildlife experts maintain its shrinking habitat and human interference in the forest areas has caused the animal to move towards human habitation.
The animal is a nocturnal rodent that roams around during the night to feed itself to evade being spotted. For over one decade, the animal has been seen in human habitation, destroying crops at an unprecedented scale from vegetable crops to orchards. Since porcupines are adapted to diverse environmental conditions, they can inhabit any place anywhere. The migration of animals to human habitation could be the reason due to food scarcity, urbanisation and cement industries.
Porcupine is emerging as a serious pest of saffron (Crocus Sativus) that is known as the red gold of Kashmir. It is on the prowl during the winter period seen roaming in orchards and saffron fields causing damage to the saffron bulbs (corms – bael mond) and barks of standing fruit trees. But when we talk of the Pampore area, saffron alludes to our mind. Pampore called Saffron Town of Kashmir Valley produces 90℅ of the total saffron produce and the remaining part by central Kashmir’s Budgam and some areas of Srinagar. But this saffron industry of Pampore has received a huge setback for over a decade owing to various variables like less rainfall, less snowfall, land encroachment, air pollution, climate change, etc.
The problem is even more highly aggravated by this porcupine that has been invading the saffron crop for almost a decade, destroying this precious spice Irretrievably. Pampore villages that are highly prone to porcupine infestation activity are Wuyan, Khrew, Shar Shali, Ladoo, and so are Srinagar villages like Khonmoh, Zawoora and Zewan. This is so because all these fall in the ambit of forest cover, which harbours these rodents and from where they make their way towards Karewas where saffron is cultivated. The villages had a vast portion of land in the hilly areas under saffron cultivation. Since the porcupine population was hitherto restricted chiefly to hilly regions, they set off initially to invade the saffron crop cultivated in these areas. In my own experience being a witness, there we had brought 2.5 kanals of land under saffron cultivation a year before its porcupine infestation. We had sown over 400 kgs of saffron corms into it. Religiously speaking, the extent of damage was so colossal that we had no option but to transplant the crop that had declined to mere 120 kgs in quantity. Each and every bed was dotted with 5-6 inch holes dug out by these fossorial creatures. Similar was the fate of other saffron-cultivated fields in the hilly areas of the villages. One could use my land as a yardstick to fathom the magnitude of the havoc these pests could cause to this precious crop that is under the threat of extinction. To make things even worse, Now they have gradually begun to migrate to Karewas over some years which is chiefly saffron-cultivated land. Now their traces of devastation to the highly prized crop are distinctly visible even here. This tantamounts to the already declining safron productivity. The production of the crop has already dwindled over the years owing to less rainfall, climate change, and land encroachment, but the menace of porcupine infestation of the land could prove a catalyst in the extinction of this red gold from the soil of our valley very soon. Their feeding behaviour towards the crop can be gauged from the fact that they not only eat the crop but also devour them. The official figures show the land under saffron cultivation has declined over the past 20 years from 5707 hectares in 1996 to 3674 hectares by 2016. However, the unabated proliferation of porcupines and to lackadaisically let them thrive on saffron crop coupled with the dwindling saffron land for commercial and residential purposes will push this costliest spice to the botanical gardens where one could count their numbered days; and the eventual death of the rich cultural heritage of the valley that our generation has been embracing as a legacy for 3500 years.
Before it is too late, a stitch in time saves nine will prove a preventive measure to saving saffron from irretrievable damage. Since the animal shows an aversion to strong pungent smell like us humans, there is a need to manufacture such repellants as could deter them from damaging the saffron corms. For this, the Department of Agriculture must rope in SKAUST, Kashmir to carry out extensive research on the animal as to which repellant (rodenticide) could be potentially efficacious on such kind of rodent to keep them at bay. The wildlife department should install traps in saffron fields to trap the animal and transport them to far-off places in the forest although it might not be quite handy as a permanent solution. As porcupines are listed in schedule 4 of the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 2002; so it is illegal to shoot the animal. The scientists at SKUAST Kashmir should assess in their extensive research as to what extent the animal could cause damage to the crop and to what extent it has reached menacing levels; then the animal could be listed as vermin (could be shot without legal permission) so that the population management of the animal could be ensured.
The need of the hour is we realise that any further delay to contain the damage caused by the animal could prove a huge setback to the economy of J&K in the near future, as mere 5℅ damage to this prized saffron by this pest can bring about a loss to the tune of 29 million rupees annually; And the livelihood of thousands of families that belong to the saffron industry directly or indirectly would suffer a very huge loss that should be a matter of grave concern for us collectively.