Orissa, where kings were once addressed as ‘Gajpati’, is fast turning into a graveyard for elephants with 296 jumbos dying in the past five years.
Electrocution has been identified as the major cause of elephant deaths in the state, Forest and Environment Minister Bijayshree Routray said.
At least 116 elephants were electrocuted in the state in between 2000-01 and October 11, 2012.
While 46 of them were found to be deliberately killed by administering electric shock, 70 others died accidentally by coming into contact with hanging live electric wires.
Wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty said the casualty rate was over 10 per year since 2008-09.This year 13 pachyderms have died, while 18 died in the previous year, forest officials said.
An analysis of elephant deaths in the last five years showed that while 26 jumbos died due to poaching, 16 were poisoned to death to prevent damage to crops. At least seven elephants were run over by trains while 16 more were killed in various other accidents.
Between 2008-09 to October 2012, 59 jumbos died due to diseases. During the same period, 29 elephants died due to deliberate electrocution while 32 died of accidental electrocution.
The Forest Minister held the Energy Department responsible for the large-scale jumbo electrocution, but Energy Minister Arun Sahu claimed, “It is the responsibility of the Forest and Environment Department to regularly inform the Energy Department about the elephant routes.”
The Forest and Environment Department has so far lodged five cases against electrical engineers holding them responsible for the deaths.
Worried over the situation, Forest and Environment Secretary R.K. Sharma said, “The government has set up a joint coordination committee to monitor elephant deaths. Members of both forest and environment and energy departments are in the committee. It will hold at least one meeting every month.”
Mr. Routray said district-level coordination committees would also be formed to check elephant deaths. He dispelled fears of elephants vanishing from Odisha, arguing birth of elephant calves outstripped the number of deaths.
Backing the minister’s views, Principal Chief Conservator of forests (wildlife), J.D. Sharma said: “Inter-state migration, mainly from Jharkhand, has increased. We suspect that at least 25 elephants have moved into Keonjhar and Sundergarh districts of Odisha from other states because of the presence of dense forest.”
This apart, the tusker ratio in comparison with female elephants in Odisha is the best in the country, leading to better growth rate of the animal, Mr. Sharma claims.
Experts, however, cite the loss of habitat, diversion of forest land, increasing frequency of trains, irrigation projects, rise in electricity connections, changing demographic patterns in and around forests and irrational allocation of land for mining as threats to elephants.
Poaching for ivory is a major reason for high casualty of elephants.
“It’s a three-stage operation. The killings are mostly done by local people, who in turn send the stuff to national level operators based mostly in the Northeast. From there, it is sent to different parts of the world primarily via Nepal,” pointed out a field-level forest official.
While people blame forest personnel for elephant deaths, officials have their own argument. “We suffer from serious manpower and infrastructure handicaps. Forty per cent of the sanctioned posts are lying vacant. Moreover, poachers nowadays are equipped with latest weapons which is difficult counter,” said a senior forest officer.
Rejecting the government claims, wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty said, “Now, Odisha’s elephant population will be severely threatened as mega bauxite and iron ore mines and metal industries are coming up in the proposed elephant reserve areas.”