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Whiff of poison prompts forest letter

Siliguri, July 31: The forest department has asked the tea garden owners of north Bengal not to use pesticides in their plantations after post-mortem reports suggested that three female elephants had died of poisoning in Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. The bodies of the elephants were found near Simulbari Tea Estate at Khuklong on July 18 and 19.

In the letter written to the tea planters’ associations of the region, the chief conservator of forests (wildlife, north Bengal), N.C. Bahuguna, said pesticides and weedicides were hazardous to humans and animals alike.

The missive dated July 21 reads: “…..the source of poisoning is being investigated from all possible angles. However, it has come to the knowledge of the officer and staff of wildlife-I division that weed and pest control in Simulbari tea garden was being taken up and that some garden workers who were applying the chemicals were hospitalised by the effect of the chemicals used for spraying of the pesticide and weedicide...”.

The foresters, who came across this information, suspect that the elephants, which had intruded into the tea estate close to the reserve forest, consumed water or fodder mixed with pesticide and died.

“We are awaiting the reports of viscera tests from Calcutta for a final conclusion,” said a senior forest officer. “As the post-mortems hinted that the pachyderms had died because of poisoning, we have initiated precautionary steps like writing to the planters’ associations and campaigning in the gardens with an aim to avoid the recurrence of such incidents.”

Representatives of wildlife NGOs also hold similar opinions. “There are high chances of elephants consuming water, contaminated with pesticides, in the estates,” said Animesh Bose, the programme co-ordinator of Siliguri-based Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation.

“That the deaths of the three elephants had almost synchronised with the illness of some workers, who were spraying pesticides in the plantations, points to poisoning being the cause of the tragedy,” said Bose. “So, it is imperative that the planters refrain from anything which may harm humans and animals.”

According to the guards, at least 70 tea gardens in the region are located close to reserve forests and the elephant corridor, spreading from Mechi on the Indo-Nepal border to Sankosh on Indo-Bhutan border.

The garden owners, on their part, assured the foresters of co-operation, but wanted to know from Bahuguna the steps his department had taken to stop elephants from foraying into the plantations.

“The forest department should inform us about the steps it has taken to keep wild elephants away from gardens. We are ready to co-operate on the pesticide issue and have already circulated the letter to our members,” said N.K. Basu, the principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association.

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