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Wild Watch

A jumbo riddle

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When the Odisha government announced an increase in the elephant population in the state three months ago, quite a few were surprised. The findings showed 1,930 pachyderms now lived in the state, compared to 1,886 two years ago. Paradoxically, Odisha has on an average been losing one large mammal each week, leading wildlife experts to question the government’s figures. 

Although Odisha accounts for a significant number of the total elephant population in the country, elephants lead a precarious existence in the state. In May this year, a group of wildlife activists claimed that they had uncovered an instance of mass killing of elephants when they found remains of four large mammals inside Similipal tiger reserve. Only a month before that, in April, a forest staff had found a dead female elephant inside the reserve. Ten elephants died in Simlipal in 2010, following which a National Tiger Conservation Authority-constituted committee submitted several recommendations to the government. “The state has implemented very few of the recommendations we made,” says noted wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty, who was a member of the committee. He also refuses to accept the government’s latest elephant census figures. “No statistical check was conducted. We don’t agree with such claims,” he says. 

So how does the government justify the figures? Principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), J D Sharma, points out that while elephant deaths are taking place, births are also being recorded. “Inter-state migration, especially from Jharkhand, has also increased. We believe at least 25 elephants have moved into Keonjhar and Sundergarh districts from outside because the condition of forests in our state is comparatively better than that of our neighbours,” he says. “The population of tuskers vis-à-vis females in Odisha is the best in the country, leading to better growth rate of the animal,” he adds. 

Still, elephant casualties have become a major headache for the government and a cause of concern for wildlife enthusiasts. By the government’s own admission, 51 elephants died in 2009-10, while in 2010-11 and 2011-12 that figure stood at 83 and 66 respectively. In 2012-13, at least 30 pachyderms have already perished, official sources say. 

“The major reasons for high elephant deaths are electrocution, railway accidents and poaching besides natural causes like ageing and heatstroke,” says Odisha forest and environment minister Bijayshree Routray. “Damage to elephant habitats and corridors as well as rising mananimal conflict are responsible for the casualties.” 

“Earlier, there were only a few trains that ran through major elephant corridors in Angul, Keonjhar and Sambalpur. But now a number of passenger and goods trains crisscross these areas, putting the elephants at serious risk,” says Sharma, citing a railway mishap on August 16 in which three elephants were killed in Keonjhar as an example. 

Experts also cite the loss of habitat, putting forest land to other use, the increasing frequency of trains, irrigation projects, a rise in electricity connections, changing demographic patterns in and around forests and irrational allocation of land for mining as threats to elephants. 

Poaching for ivory accounts for a third of elephant deaths, say activists. “It’s a three-stage operation. The killings are mostly done by local people, who in turn send the stuff to national level operators based mostly in the Northeast. From there, it is sent to different parts of the world primarily via Nepal,” explains a fieldlevel forest official. While the modus operandi of poachers is known to the authorities, not much is seemingly being done to prevent it from happening. “Sometimes we are helpless. We suffer from serious manpower and infrastructure handicaps. Forty per cent of the sanctioned posts are lying vacant. Moreover, poachers nowadays are equipped with latest weapons which we cannot counter,” says a forest officer, adding that apart from traditional rail and road routes, illegal traders are sending elephant tusks, which have been cut into small pieces and packaged, by post after labelling them as ayurvedic medicines. “We lack a dedicated forest intelligence setup to curb such activities.” 

Forest and environment minister Bijayshree Routray insists the government is serious about protecting elephants. “We have put in place an elephant management plan and are working on restoration of corridors and habitats. We plan to create a dedicated cell involving forest and police officers to track and bust organised wildlife crime syndicates. We are also thinking of giving forest staff powers to use firearms so that they are able to effectively tackle poachers and timber mafia,” he says. “The government has also asked power utility companies to install circuit breakers and high poles to prevent sagging of transmission wires leading to the electrocution of elephants,” he adds. Officers say that the government has also proposed to raise a sniffer dog squad to deal with wildlife cases.

But wildlife activists doubt the state’s sincerity. Some time back, the government shelved proposals for two elephant reserves, South Odisha elephant reserve and Baitarani elephant reserve, despite human-elephant conflict becoming increasingly common in different parts of the state. Mohanty alleges that this “was done because of the mining and industrial lobby”. Officials, on the other hand, defend the state’s decision, arguing the elephant reserves will serve little purpose unless the Centre amends laws to give them the required teeth.

But Mohanty sees a larger gameplan. He believes the reserves were not created because mines and industries which could come up in these areas would find it difficult to obtain clearances if the reserves had been established. “Now, Odisha’s elephant population will be severely threatened as mega bauxite and iron ore mines and metal industries coming up in these proposed elephant reserve areas will easily obtain clearances without assessment of impacts on wild elephants. This will only worsen the situation,” he says.

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