Bhubaneswar, Oct. 6: The death of two elephants in Bhanjanagar, Ganjam, today has added to mounting concern in the officialdom over the growing number of jumbo casualties in the state.
Stalked by poachers and a victim of habitat degradation, India’s heritage animal is on the run in this eastern state. Official statistics show 150 elephants have been killed in Odisha in the past seven years, the majority of them falling to poachers’ bullets.
The two elephants that died today were electrocuted when they came in contact with high-tension wires in a cashew garden near Lendei village in Bhanjanagar of Ganjam district. Forest officials suspect poaching as they seized an axe and some clothes from the spot where the electric wires were lying around the carcass of the animals.
“We are trying to nab the poachers responsible for this,” said Krushna Chandra Mishra, divisional forest officer, North Ghumsur Forest Division.
Though the government claims the number of elephants in the state has gone up according to the latest census conducted in June, the increase is attributed to a high number of births, rather than steps taken to prevent deaths.
Habitat erosion triggered by rising industrial and mining activities has forced the animal to stray out of the forests and into newer areas. Barring Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Puri, elephants are now found in all other districts of the state, which was not the case earlier, said chief wildlife warden J.D. Sharma.
“Development has taken its toll on them. In the 2010 census, there were 64 elephants in the Chandaka sanctuary. This year, we found only 26 to 28 because a lot of development activities are going on in the area. Many elephants have migrated to Berhampur, Balangir, Sonepur and other coastal districts,” Sharma said.
Apart from industries, which have taken a heavy toll of the state’s sylvan wealth denuding forests in large patches, railway lines and high tension electric wires have also been posing a threat to the elephants. Sixty-eight elephants have been electrocuted, and six have died on railway tracks in different parts of the state since 2005.
Wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty blamed the state government for failing to prevent elephant deaths in spite of sufficient funds and technical expertise.
“If the forest department deployed guards for patrolling, they could keep poachers at bay. They could also ensure that elephants did not get electrocuted by coming in contact with high-tension electric wires,” he said.
Mohanty said the most important thing for the long-term survival of wild elephants is the corridors through which they move from one forest to another. This ensures that they get proper food throughout the year. However, the Rengali irrigation canal has cut up the Satkosia-Kapilash-Keonjhar corridor. Other important corridors of Simlipal-Hadgarh-Kuldiha are also affected by quarries and mines.
The chief wildlife warden said the state government was working on developing 14 elephant corridors, but these were actually doing more harm than good to the animals. “Corridors have been advertised so much that it sees maximum human interference. People living in the vicinity of the corridors burst firecrackers and play musical instruments to scare the elephants away. So the animals go everywhere except to the corridors. The concept has actually backfired,” he said. He also said electricity and railway authorities were not cooperating with the forest department in taking safety measures to protect the elephants.
Former chief wildlife warden Saroj Kumar Patnaik also agreed that the corridors had outlived their utility. “The haphazard movement of elephants has virtually obliterated the corridors,” said Patnaik, suggesting that while green belts should be created around industries, reflectors should be used on the railway tracks to warn the elephants, who might run onto them.
Forest and environment minister Bijoyshree Routray admitted that growing elephant casualties was a problem. She said: “Steps are being taken to reduce elephant deaths caused by train accidents and electrocution. In case of poaching, we are taking the help of the crime branch to investigate into wildlife offences.”