Odisha on elephant losing spree; poachers run amok to make killing   

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By Baijayanti Rout

Bhubaneswar, January 2: Odisha has a fair number of Asian elephants spread across almost all parts of the state, barring some portions in southern and coastal areas. According to a document obtained through the RTI, the habitat of elephants has depleted and fragmented over a period of time, which has led to increased human-elephant conflicts in many parts of the state.

There is absolutely no accountability for loss of wild animals in the State. Despite elephants dying in a large number and revelation of smuggling of wildlife such as pangolins and leopards, the government has not taken any disciplinary action against higher officials.

Though the Odisha government has three elephant reserves – Mayurbhanj, Mahanadi and Sambalpur – spread over an area 8,508.95 square kilometres and constituted five elephant corridors for the smooth movement of the herds of elephants, much of the areas are overrun with poachers or disturbed by rising industrialisation, mining and urbanisation.

The RTI response also says that the state has conducted eight elephant censuses in the last 43 years. The first Census was conducted in 1979. It was followed by censuses in 1999, 2002, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2017. In 1979, there were 2,044 elephants in Odisha. In the next census in 1999, the number declined to 1,827. The number has gradually improved to 1,841 in 2002, 1,862 in 2007, 1,886 in 2010, 1,930 in 2012, 1,954 in 2015 and 1,976 in 2017.

In the last census of 2017, the elephants – 344 male, 1,092 female, 38 unknown sex and 502 young – were found in at least 38 of the total 50 forest and wildlife divisions of the state. The Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR) core area has the highest concentration of 330 elephants, while the Dhenkanal forest division has the second highest concentration of 169 elephants, according to the Census.

They are followed by the Satkosia wildlife division with 147, Athagarh forest division with 115, Balasore wildlife forest division with 97, Bamra wildlife division with 94 and Mahanadi wildlife division with 93 elephants. More than 400 elephants died in Odisha’s forests in the last five years, with disease, accidents and electrocution causing nearly a fifth of those deaths, information obtained through the Right to Information (RTI) Act shows.

A major point of concern revealed by the RTI responses is that more than half of the elephants which died due to electrocution were caused by “deliberate acts” of electrocution by poachers. Of the 61 elephants, which were electrocuted, 35 were killed by poachers. The response added that of the total deaths, as many as 159 were due to diseases, while 106 and 61 were due to accidents and electrocution respectively.

Of the elephants, which died due to diseases, an overwhelming number (126) of deaths were attributed to the category of other diseases, while 24 and nine deaths were attributed to anthrax and herpes. On the other hand, the PIO said 85 of the total 106 elephants which died in ‘accidents’ were caused by “infighting, falling from hill, etc.” Of the remaining, 17 and four elephants were killed by trains and vehicles on the road respectively.

Only one elephant died due to poisoning. According to the PIO, the forest/wildlife departments arrested 171 poachers in the same period for their involvement in elephant deaths. The departments nabbed 50 poachers during 2021-22 only.

In 2022-23, at least 54 elephants died in the state with a majority of them falling to electrocution, poaching and train accidents. Out of a total of 1,976 jumbos counted in 2017 elephant census, the last time when such a census happened, 344 were found to be adult males. Since then, in a little over five years, Odisha has lost over 108 male elephants over the age of 15, mostly to poaching and unnatural deaths like electrocution, poisoning, train and road accidents.

The document says that the government has taken several measures to prevent the electrocution of elephants by identifying vulnerable points of electrocution in each forest or wildlife division, mapping transmission lines and joint patrolling by forest and energy department staff.

To lower the number of elephants’ deaths by poachers, frequent patrol is crucial. The government should take harsh action against poachers who intentionally kill wild animals or elephants. To decrease the number of elephant deaths, poachers should face severe punishment. Even though the Orissa High Court has approved the formation of a committee made up of members of the police and forest departments to expedite the investigation and prosecution of wildlife crime cases, effective monitoring and action in this respect are still required.

(Author is a PhD Scholar, Centre for studies in economics and planning, Central University of Gujarat)

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