Mere outrage will not save the elephants. Protecting forests and working with locals will help

Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the human-elephant conflict killed 2,361 people and 510 pachyderms in India. In the last three months of the lockdown, a series of elephant deaths have rocked the country. But the Union environment ministry is clearing projects in the key elephant habitats

Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
| Updated: June 26th, 2020

Photo: Satyaprakash Pandey

In the last three months of the lockdown, 14 elephants have died in Odisha of which only two were natural deaths. Last month, a pregnant elephant was brutally killed in Kerala when she was fed a pineapple filled with powerful crackers. In the Central India state of Chhattisgarh, six elephants died recently within a period of 10 days.

This is the status of a species, which is also revered as the Elephant God Ganesh in the country, and which enjoys the same status as the tiger under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

These recent deaths of elephants have pushed the state machinery into some action. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, which is planning to officially notify the Lemru elephant reserve to provide these large mammals with suitable habitat, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), Atul Kumar Shukla, and the Divisional Forest Officers of Balrampur and Dharamjaigarh have been transferred. It is claimed the sixth elephant had killed a few people and raided villages for crops and died due to electrocution in the Dharamjaigarh forest division (Raigarh). This forest division is known for a high incidence of human-elephant conflict.

And this rise in human-elephant conflict is not limited to Chhattisgarh or Odisha alone. A large number of states are reporting damages and deaths — both of the elephants and people. For instance, between 2014-15 and 2018-19, 2,361 humans were killed as a result of conflict with elephants, while 510 elephants were killed in incidents of electrocution, train accidents, poaching and poisoning during the same period. Electrocution was the primary cause accounting for nearly two-thirds of the deaths (333 out of 510).

State-wise, West Bengal reported the highest human death toll, at 403, followed by Odisha at 397 and Assam at 332 deaths during the same time period. These three states account for about half of both human and elephant deaths in the overall human-elephant conflict in the country.

This conflict is rising due to various factors, including habitat loss and degradation due to mining and developmental activities, deforestation, broken corridors (impeding elephant movement), and frequent crop raids by animals.

A large number of states are reporting damages and deaths — both of the elephants and people. Photo: Swati Subhedar

Electrocution, a major killer

The Chhattisgarh forest department claims it has put in place a number of measures to protect the elephants. These include radio-collaring of animals for keeping a track of their movements, spreading awareness among local communities through WhatsApp to make villagers aware of the animal/herd movement, and the formation of hathi mitra dals (Friends of Elephant groups) in villages affected by the presence and movement of elephants.

Jolted by the recent deaths, the state government has also announced 10-member surveillance teams in each of its forest division. “We are imparting training to local communities on how to respond if elephants enter human habitations. The best possible course of action is to not disturb the animals as much as possible. People should avoid entering forests when elephants are nearby, but sometimes accidental encounters do happen,” Arun Pandey, the additional principal chief conservator of forests (APCCF), Chhattisgarh told Gaon Connection.

The state also offers compensation against crop losses. “Timely compensation worth Rs 22,500 per hectare is paid in case of crop loss and Rs 6 lakh per person in case of death due to elephant attack. Money is also paid in cases of property damage and disability. In the past five years, we have paid more than Rs 75 crore towards compensation,” he added.

However, despite a slew of measures, both the conflict and elephant deaths are regularly reported. Wildlife experts point out elephant deaths due to electrocution have emerged as a major headache. “Local people are responsible for the elephants dying due to electrocution,” said Nitin Singhvi, a Chhattisgarh-based wildlife lover and an activist.

246 elephants have died in Odisha since 2016 due to electrocution, poaching, and train accidents. Photo: Satyaprakash Pandey

Pandey agreed most elephant deaths occur due to illegal power connections and resultant electrocution. He also informed that in the recent elephant electrocution case in Dharamjaigarh, a few workers of the power department have been arrested. “Some of the villagers are enjoying illegal connections which should be removed. Field officers of the forest department should inform the electricity department about the presence of such illegal connections. There should be joint cooperation in this regard,” he added.

According to Rudra Prasanna Mahapatra, the regional facilitator at the Wildlife Trust of India, Bhubaneswar, the major problem lies with people laying live electric galvanised iron wires on the ground in forest areas after hooking these into power supply lines. “In Odisha, where the demand for bushmeat is high, villagers often use these wires to kill deer and wild boars. But sometimes elephants get caught, like in the case of the two elephant killings in Keonjhar district,” he told Gaon Connection.

According to information provided in the State Assembly by the state forest and environment minister Bikram Keshari Arukha, 246 elephants have died in Odisha since 2016 due to electrocution, poaching, and train accidents.

Lockdown woes for elephants

In the last three months of the COVID19 lockdown, restrictions were placed on the movement because of which risk to the animals increased. “Poaching is a big problem, but drones equipped with thermal imaging sensors can patrol at night. In some of the divisions, where DFOs are aware of the latest technologies, drones are proving to be very useful,” said Mahapatra.

Aditya Panda, the Bhubaneswar-based wildlife activist agreed elephant deaths have increased in the lockdown, but there may be no direct connection with poaching. However, he agreed a lot of bushmeat poaching happens in the state.

“The real problem is of poor enforcement by the forest department. People eat bushmeat not out of absolute poverty but because they can get away with it,” he told Gaon Connection. “There is no policing on the ground due to staff shortage and lack of leadership in the state government towards wildlife conservation. The Odisha government has never really set any proper policy related to wildlife conservation,” he added.

Securing elephant corridors is also important for reducing conflict. Photo: Satyaprakash Pandey

Rising human-elephant conflict

In Odisha, conflict cases are high in Mayurbhanj and Dhenkanal districts. “In Dhenkanal, the carrying capacity is 30 to 40 elephants, but there are always more than 200 animals present,” informed Mahapatra. “Elephants from Keonjhar have entered Dhenkanal as a result of the disturbance due to mining. The Chandaka Wildlife Sanctuary, which was once a good elephant habitat, no more has these animals. The scenario has changed in the past 10-15 years,” he added.

Talking about the rising conflict, Mayukh Chatterjee, head of the human-wildlife conflict mitigation division at WTI, said the conflict is high in Assam’s Goalpara district and on the southern edge of the Manas National Park. “Conflicts cannot be resolved without working with the local people and rebuilding their tolerance. If people are fine with a certain amount of loss [crops, etc], then co-existence can happen,” he told Gaon Connection. “Most people think that conflicts take place because forest departments do not act, but that is not the case. We need to work with the local communities,” he added.

Some states have implemented projects to reduce human-elephant conflict. For instance, in Hassan district of Karnataka land-use changes, opening up of coffee plantations and the use of solar fencings had led to increased human-elephant conflict. Along with the state forest department, Mysuru-based non-profit Nature Conservation Foundation launched an early warning system via voice call alerts and SMS to reduce deaths and casualties by helping people avoid direct encounters with elephants. Digital display boards in Kannada at critical points also warn people about elephant presence. These boards cover about 90 villages in the district.

Securing elephant corridors is also important for reducing conflict. The Elephant Task Force report submitted in 2010 highlighted the identified corridors in India do not enjoy legal protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 or the Environment Protection Act. At present, the Wildlife Trust of India is working with the Government of Odisha to restore these corridors by planting fodder plants, creating water bodies and securing open wells. For the last two years, work is on in two corridors of Angul district and one in Dhenkanal.

In the last three months of the lockdown, a series of elephant deaths have rocked the country. Photo: Pixabay

These corridors are stretches or passages connecting two habitats, informed Mahapatra. “If elephants using these corridors do not get adequate food and water, they easily get diverted. But the restoration of corridors is a long-term process and often needs 20-30 years,” he said

But, Ananda Kumar, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, said the corridor is a speculative term and there is a need to evaluate how frequently elephants use these corridors and during which seasons. “Monitoring these corridors is critical in terms of movement because the landscape is constantly changing, and animals will respond to these changes automatically,” Kumar told Gaon Connection.

Palamu-based elephant expert DS Srivastava strongly advocates the restoration of forest areas. “Elephants migrated from Jharkhand and Odisha and occupied Chhattisgarh. They are constantly moving towards Maharashtra and even Bandhavgarh and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh in search of good habitats,” he said.

However, rather than addressing the problem of rising human-conflict and restoring the forests or elephant corridors, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change seems to be working in the opposite direction.

In a recent article, Prerna Singh Bindra and Aditya Panda write: “In April 2020, the National Board for Wildlife approved coal mining in the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve, India’s largest tropical lowlands forest. Two months earlier in February 2020, the NBWL had cleared Laldhang Road that will cut the sole wildlife corridor connecting Corbett and Rajaji tiger reserves.”

This is not all. The environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee has also “allowed coal mining in 1,70,000 hectares of Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forest, home to elephants and other wildlife. Karnataka had also approved the Hubbali-Ankola railway which would fell 2,20,000 trees across 600 hectares in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot. This move was stayed by the high court on June 19, 2020.”

No surprise the human-elephant conflict is rising in the country with casualties on both the sides.