As we celebrated the World Elephant Day on Monday (August 12), the distressed elephants of Odisha had nothing to celebrate with their homes getting encroached for mining, farming, industries, urbanisation and their traditional paths getting cut off by irrigation canals, railway lines and mines. In 1979 there were 2,044 elephants in Odisha but the number has plunged to 1,976 with increasing number of deaths of the pachyderms.
Keonjhar district which had 112 elephants in 2002 now has only 40 losing them to large scale mining while Dhenkanal district which had 81 elephants in 2002 now has 169 with elephants moving in human habitations and damaging cornfields and orchards. They are distracted and at times trapped, unable as they are to use traditional migration routes, cut off by the Rengali irrigation canals and illegal stone quarries.
The 60-odd elephants from the Chandaka sanctuary disturbed by development activities and lack of fodder as well as cut off by expansion of Bhubaneswar city have now virtually abandoned the sanctuary and migrated to Ganjam and Cuttack districts. A group of 15 to 16 elephants from Chandaka which stayed put in the Ganjam’s Rambha forest range for about 4 to 5 years has been completely wiped out falling prey to electrocutions, accidents and train kills. Another group of about 25 Chandaka elephants reduced to less than 20 are now trapped in small patches of forests and come into frequent conflict with farmers in Khuntuni area.
As many as 14 elephant corridors were officially identified by the Odisha Government in January 2010 covering over 870 sqkm, with the length being 420.8 km and including three inter-State corridors with West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Rs 20 crore has been spent over 5 years to develop the corridors. These corridors are not yet notified under under Environment (Protection) Act 1986 for last nine years as Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ), thereby exposing them to future diversion for mining, industries, canal, railway, dams or road development.
Fortunately, the Wildlife Society of Orissa (WSO) has obtained a stay order from the NGT, three years ago that prohibits diversion of the proposed corridors.
Odisha had identified five Elephant Reserves (ER) of which only three, such as the Mahanadi Reserve (8,036 sq km), the Mayurbhanj Reserve (7,043 sqkm) and the Sambalpur Reserve (5,846 sqkm) were notified. South Odisha Reserve ( 4,216 sqkm) and the Baitarani Reserve (10,516 sqkm) have not been notified after a powerful mining lobby pressurized the Forest Department to withdraw its proposal already sent to the Government of India in 2007. Now rampant mining is going on in the Baitarani ER leading to huge rise in human-elephant conflict.
Odisha elephants live a life fraught with danger all the time due to poaching, poisoning, electrocutions, train kills and being chased always by forest squads. The Supreme Court has banned chasing elephants but this order is usually ignored. Though Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam have much larger population, the elephant mortality is highest in Odisha. About 1,497 elephant deaths have been recorded in the State since 1990 till 2019 (29 years). It is shocking that 718 elephant deaths have been recorded in the last 9.5 years alone. The average death per year which was 33 from 1990 to 2000 became 46 per year from year 2000 to 2010 but it is now 77 per year since 2010.
Out of the 718 deaths, 103 were killed by poachers for ivory, 67 were killed by poachers by laying live electric wires, 45 were killed due to negligence by electricity distribution companies (Discoms) leading to sagging electric supply lines and poorly fixed poles, 26 were killed by trains, two were killed on roads by speeding vehicles and 11 were killed by manmade structures like open wells and canals. 329 died due to diseases, accidental falls, infighting, old age etc. and in 146 deaths the reasons could not be ascertained.
The tragic death of seven elephants by electrocution due to low hanging 11 KV electric wires at Dhenkanal last year was the largest such incident in India and shocked everyone. Every year many are killed by electrified wire traps laid for wild boar in Dhenkanal and Angul districts.
Out of the 146 cases for which reasons could not be known, 3/4th of them were cases where the bodies were found after several months. They were decomposed with only bones pointing at poor patrolling by the Forest Department. Considering the high number of cases in which cause could not be known, it will not be wrong to say that well over 40 per cent of the elephant mortality are unnatural deaths.
In the elephant census of 2017, there were 344 males out of a total of 1,976 but only a few of them were adult breeding elephants which are needed for a healthy sustainable population.
Large breeding males above the age of 20 to 25 years could be as less as 80 to 100. In the last seven years, over 100 adult breeding male elephants have died, poached or killed by electrocution and train kills. Each year on an average 18 to 20 such adult breeding elephants are killed. Mating by immature males will lead to birth of more and more unhealthy calves resulting in higher mortality. The health and sustainability of the Odisha elephant population has become a matter of deep concern for conservationists.
There is virtually a collapse in the protection and conservation of elephants in Odisha with the Government doing little or nothing to conserve and protect elephant population. Unless there is regular monitoring and fixing of accountability at highest level, they will continue to perish. So far requests by the WSO in the last three years for monthly reviews by the Minister have gone unheard of.
(The writer is secretary, Wildlife Society of Orissa, Mobile: 9437024265)