In the past five years, 295 pachyderms have died, many of unnatural causes

The boom in mineral-based industries may have put Odisha in the league of top investment destinations in India in the past one decade, but it appears to be a bane for its ‘famous’ elephant population.

As many as 295 elephants have died in the past five years, and more than 60 per cent of the deaths have occurred unnaturally.

The high number of deaths is now attributed to critical pressure on habitats in districts endowed with large mineral deposits.

Since 2008-09, a total of 57 elephants have died naturally and 59 on account of disease, taking the total number of natural deaths to 116. But 179 elephants have lost their lives to poaching, poisoning, deliberate and accidental electrocution and accidents, and for ‘reasons not known.’

In the current year, 46 jumbos have already perished, including seven owing to deliberate execution. The past year (2010-11), which witnessed 83 deaths, was the most disastrous year for the pachyderms.

Such has been the pressure on the elephants that depredation has been recorded in 26 out of the State’s 30 districts, something unheard of a decade ago. Distressed elephants have been migrating to other districts, traversing long distances, trampling ready-to-harvest crops, and often coming in conflict with humans.

“The situation has become very complex. Elephants are fast losing their habitats to rapid development taking place around the forested regions that were once calm. Elephants cannot live in constantly disturbed areas,” Odisha’s Chief Wildlife Warden J. D. Sharma told The Hindu here on Friday.

Mr. Sharma said: “Roads are laid right through the elephant corridors. The frequency of trains in districts that have healthy elephant population has gone up. Rural electrification projects do not adhere to the parameters that can help to prevent electrocution of elephants.”

He said the train movement in the mineral-rich Keonjhar district had gone down to 13 minutes and, more importantly, trains passed through the critical forest area. “Under this circumstance, one should not hope that elephants would live a normal life in forest.”

But the dust deposited on green leaves by the movement of vehicles, mining and the disposal of fly-ash has emerged as the biggest threat to the survival of elephants. As the State braces itself for generation of over 40,000 MW of thermal power, the situation is likely to change for the worse.

The State government had thought of restoring elephant corridors. But the plan had a lot of chinks. A plan to acquire land from farmers and make it green for creating a contiguous forest was shelved as it would have created more animosity between humans and elephants.

With development taking place faster, especially in the mineral-based sector, elephant conservation has taken a back seat. “Our views need to be incorporated into all development plans so that elephant deaths can be minimised,” Mr. Sharma said.

During the last decade-and-a-half, the government has received investment proposals worth more than Rs. 1,30,0000 crore, mostly in the mineral sector. Even if half of it comes through, elephants will be left with hardly any space to live in, says Prasanna Behera, an Angul-based wildlife activist.