Wildlife & Biodiversity

World elephant day: Recent killings show Odisha’s elephants live in constant danger

The elephant mortality rate has gone up alarmingly: The average deaths per year was 33 in 1990-2000, 46 in 2001-2010 and 76 since 2010.

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Thursday 12 August 2021
International elephant day: Recent killings show Odisha’s elephants live in constant danger. Photo: Ashis Senapati

Even as we celebrate World Elephant Day (August 12), instances of cruelty towards pachyderm keep being reported; human-animal conflicts too continue unabated.  

A 20-year-old elephant was speared to death in Odisha’s Dhenkanal forest August 10. A team of veterinary officials removed two iron plates from the carcass, said Rashmi Ranjan Swain, assistant conservator of forest of Dhenkanal.

In the last 20 days, five elephants have been found dead in Keonjhar forest division and adjoining areas, including the poaching of a male elephant on August 10. 

Odisha once had a sizeable elephant population. Over the decades, their habitats have been slowly destroyed by mining, farming, industries and urbanisation, compelling them to move out in large numbers and entering new areas in small groups.

There were 2,044 elephants in the eastern state in 1979. Only 1,976 remained when the 2017 census was carried out. 

As many of 26 of Odisha’s 30 districts still have elephants but the distribution has changed dramatically in the last two decades.

Keonjhar, for instance, had 112 elephants in 2002 but lost most of them to habitat encroachment from large-scale mining. It only has 40 elephants now. 

Dhenkanal, on the other hand, had 81 elephants in 2002 but now has 169. “These animals get trapped in the crisscrossing Rengali irrigation canals,” said Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of Wildlife Society of Odisha.

Similarly, around 70 elephants in Chandaka sanctuary abandoned the sanctuary and migrated to Ganjam, Nayagarh and Cuttack districts. 

Many were killed by trains and electrocution in Ganjam.

Rampant mining, corridor destruction

Keonjhar, Sundargarh, Jharsuguda and Angul have rich deposits of coal, iron ore, bauxite and manganese. Thus, mining has flourished in these districts, leaving little space for elephants. 

Illegal stone and morrum quarries abound, disturbing the elephant habitats and movement paths.  

Most of the traditional elephant corridors have been degraded, restricting migration. In 2010, fourteen elephant corridors stretching over 420.8 kilometres and covering an area of 870 square kilometres, were officially identified. Rs 20 crore was earmarked by the state to secure and develop them, added Mohanty.

The government, however, did not issue a formal notification to secure them under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. 

Five elephant reserves — Mahanadi Reserve (8,036 sq km), Mayurbhanj Reserve (7,043 sq km), Sambalpur Reserve (5,846 sq km),  South Odisha Reserve (4,216 sq km) and Baitarani Reserve (10,516 sq km) — were identified in 2007. 

The last two have not been notified, presumably under pressure from the powerful mining lobby, according to local activists. 

Devastating linear projects

Rapid development and spread of  railways, roadways, electrification and irrigation canal networks had a devastating effect on the habitats and traditional migratory paths of the elephants in Odisha. 

Over the last 11 years, 31 elephants have been killed by trains and six by other vehicles. Electrification of rural Odisha with power lines passing through forests and wildlife corridors have led to the death of 135 elephants due to electrocution during the same period. As many as 87 of them fell prey to live-wire poaching. 

The males are particularly vulnerable. Only about 150 male elephants were over the age of 20 years and could breed, according to the 2017 census. 

About 20 adult, breeding, male elephants die each year, mostly because of unnatural causes like poaching and electrocution. The dwindling breeding male population and the isolated populations due to fragmented forests is weakening the gene pool due to mating among immature elephants and inbreeding. 

Poaching for ivory 

Since July 2012, ivory was seized from smugglers in 29 cases. The actual number of smuggling cases are much higher, according to experts.

Over 44 tusks also have been seized during the last nine years. 

Human-animal conflicts and deaths

The human-animal conflict has become acute in the recent past, with high mortality on both sides, as elephants have entered newer areas.

The elephant mortality rate has gone up alarmingly: The average deaths per year was 33 in 1990-2000, 46 in 2001-2010 and 76 since 2010. 

What caused elephant deaths in the last decade

Elephant Mortality Break-up   Human casualties
Period - April,2010 to 11th August,2021  
Natural causes Reason not known Poaching Poisoning Electrocuted Train Kill Road Kill Total Elephant Deaths   Human Deaths Humans Injured  
389 178 86 37 135 31 6 862   921 692  

Experts attribute this decadal decline to inadequate patrolling and monitoring by senior officers and lack of action against electricity distribution companies.

Sagging naked overhead wires, electrified fences and wild boar poaching wires have caused multiple deaths due to electrocution. 

The elephants would have been saved if the distcoms had installed safety devices. 

The most egregious cases of elephant deaths have gone unpunished, including the death of seven elephants in Dhenkanal in 2018 by a low-hanging 11-kilovolt wire, said Mohanty.

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