By Arun Kumar Das
Bhubaneswar: The ever-increasing deaths of elephants as well as people in human-animal conflicts in Odisha has alarmed environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts who blame the state Forest Department’s “callous approach” for the problem and have sought an urgent action plan to prevent loss of lives.
Data released by the Wildlife Society of Odisha (WSO), in collaboration with Wildlife Protection Society of India and Elephant Family, show that, since 1990, nearly 1,400 elephants have died because of human-animal conflict, of which 591 died in the last eight years.
In the same period, 1,200 people have been killed by elephants, with the last eight years accounting for 569 of them.
From an average mortality of 33 per year between 1990 and 2000, the number grew to 46 per year between 2000 and 2010 and reached an alarming average of 73 elephants per year from 2010-11 to 2017-18.
If the rising death trend continues, it spells doom for the species as it might significantly overtake the birth rate, WSO Secretary Biswajit Mohanty said.
According to the data, of the 591 elephants’ deaths since 2010, 207 died due to unnatural reasons like poaching (95) and electrocution (87); trains killed 23, two died in road accidents and seven elephants died falling into open wells.
The reasons could not be deterrmined in 111 deaths, primarily due to the fact that by the time the bodies were found, they were in highly decomposed. Since April 2015, 80 bodies were found in such as state.
“On an average Odisha is losing 18 adult breeding male elephants each year. In the last five years at least 62 adult males have been poached, but not a single culprit has been apprehended till now due to lack of an effective intelligence network,” said Mohanty, accusing the Forest Department of doing precious little to protect the adult breeding males.
Demanding that adult males be radio collared, tracked and monitored to protect them and also to prevent unsuspecting people from encountering them, Gaja Bandhu, a network of wildlife volunteers, has sought an immediate action plan to curb the high rate of elephant mortality in the state.
Besides the increased number of elephant deaths, Gaja Bandhu volunteers, who are spread across the districts of Sambalpur, Keonjhar, Angul, Dhenkanal, Jajpur, Cuttack and Deoghar, noted with deep concern the escalation of human-elephant conflict in the region.
The number of human-elephant encounters have gone up from 107 in 2014 to 120 in 2017-18. This year, within just 26 days, in 15 encounters, 10 people were killed and 18 injured. Dhenkanal Division’s Sadar and Sadangi Range alone accounted for six deaths, with several injured in the last 26 days, the data showed.
Shortage of fodder in the natural forests is the main reason for elephants venturing into human habitations. The shortage happens primarily due to large-scale felling of trees for timber, forest fires, rampant harvesting of fruits in summer, and cutting off fodder creepers like Siali, said Mohanty, who is also the convener of Gaja Bandhu.
Suggesting short-term and long-term measures to reduce human-elephant encounters, Gaja Bandhu has sought preventive measures. Tracking of herds and lone tuskers is essential to anticipate danger to locals. Dedicated trackers need to be engaged at least for the problem tuskers. Regular tracking can also protect adult tuskers from poachers.
Seeking support of the locals, Gaja Bandhu has sugested that tribesmen like Malhars, Mankadias and other forest dwellers are the right candidates for such a task.
Gaja Bandhu also suggestted that power supply to villages should not be cut off when there is elephant movement in the area, presumably to prevent the animals from being electrocuted by sagging power lines.
Communication through SMS/Whatsapp alerts about the position of a herd and lone males has been successfully adopted in Bengal to prevent encounters. Such a system can be studied and immediately introduced in Odisha’s elephant districts.
As far as long-term solutions are concerned, Gaja Bandhu suggests street lights with inverter back-up be installed in vulnerable villages to discourage the entry of elephants and alert locals to their presence at night. Also, air-tight storage bins for paddy should be given to each farmer in the affected areas to avoid elephant raids.
Identified problem tuskers should be radio-collared and RFID listening posts set up in villages which can pick up signals from over 500 metres. Whenever a problem male elephant is close by, sirens and lights would switch on to warn the villagers.
According to Gaja Bandhu, the state government’s “compassionate guidelines” for loss of crops, cattle and houses, as well as human casualties, etc., are inadequate and ambiguous. Also, the process of payment was extremely unfriendly. Though elephant depredation, loss of property and loss of life have been included in the Odisha Right to Public Services Act, the system of receiving claims and releasing funds is in dismal shape.
Gaja Bandhu maintains that unfair and inadequate provisions in the rules in case of injuries to humans caused by wild animals need to be amended. Temporary and permanent injuries have not been defined. Secondly, while in the case of temporary injury, the government pays just Rs 5,000, it is Rs 1 lakh for permanent injury — but there is nothing in between. Also, the victims are compelled to go to private hospitals in the absence of adequate facilities in government hospitals.
These are some of the issues that need to be immediately addressed, Gaja Bandhu said.
(Arun Kumar Das is a senior Delhi-based freelance journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected])