It can soothe a troubled mind and calm a rebellious gut, but a remote Nepalese forest community has discovered another unlikely use for chamomile — it scares away unruly rhinos.
The ethnic Tharu people who live beneath the southern foothills of the Himalayas have been plagued for generations by the one-horned rhinoceros, which ventures onto their land, trampling crops and sometimes injuring villagers.
Loath to use violent means to keep the endangered grazing species at bay, they discovered that planting the daisy-like chamomile on the edge of the forest would ward off their nuisance neighbors, who hate the smell.
“It works as a barrier. Because of the peculiar smell of this unpalatable [herb] ... it helps to stop wildlife from entering farmland. It works not only for rhinos, but also other herbivores,” said Suman Bhattarai of the Partnership for Rhino Conservation, which helps Nepalis live side-by-side with the rhino.
The Tharu are said to be direct descendants of Buddha and to have lived for centuries in the forests of the Terai, a narrow strip of land which extends for 900km along the southern border of Nepal.
Their innovative use of chamomile has seen the tribespeople of Suryapattuwa village shortlisted for the BBC’s US$20,000 World Challenge Award, which rewards enterprise helping to maintain sustainable local communities.
“Animals from the nearby buffer zone area of the Bardiya National Park used to enter our farmland and destroy huge amounts of crops. We started this work with support from the national park and WWF Nepal,” community leader Mangal Tharu Yogi told the Kathmandu Post.
While large herbivores baulk at the pungent odor, chamomile is used to treat a wide variety of human complaints, including indigestion, heartburn and vertigo.
Bhattarai said tribespeople who might not be inclined to spend time growing a crop they cannot eat should think of selling it as an herbal remedy as well as using it as a deterrent.
Thousands of greater one-horned rhinos, also known as the Indian rhinoceros, once roamed Nepal and northern India, but their numbers have plunged over the past century because of poaching and human encroachment of their habitat.
Wildlife experts spent a month earlier this year conducting an exhaustive survey and counted 534 rhinos in Nepal’s southern forests — 99 more than when the last such study was carried out in 2008.