Hanging with the Elephants

As unplanned industrialisation, poor management and large-scale habitat destruction force the elephant out of its natural home, the villages of Odisha have become the battleground of an ugly human-elephant conflict

Written by Debabrata Mohanty | Published:September 18, 2016 12:00 am
elephants-759 The tusk that did the damage: Elephants are highly intelligent, long-ranging animals, which need to move from one place to another in search of food.

On September 5, moments after a herd of elephants got stuck on an island on the swelling Baitarani river on the borders of Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj districts of Odisha, the loud trumpeting of the animals resonated in nearby villages. Scores of villagers from Erendei in Keonjhar district soon flocked to the riverbank, some with sacks of paddy and sugarcane and others with prayers on their lip. A herd of eight elephants from Similipal tiger sanctuary in Mayurbhanj district was stuck on the island while trying to rescue a three-month-old elephant calf that was almost washed away in the surging river current. In the end, the elephants did cross over to safety, but not before villagers kept vigil overnight and conducted poojas for their safe passage.

But hundreds of kilometres away in Dhenkanal district, people are spending sleepless nights in fear of the same elephants. In Rasasing village, housewife Suphala Parida did not expect the mammals to bring the three-day festival of Raja to a halt in June this year. As evening set in, a group of women had gathered to relive the fun they had had at the festival. It was around then that an intruder announced its presence — a tusker was out foraging for food. It broke a few branches from a mango tree, searched for paddy and then got drawn to a swing. “It was pushing the swing with its trunk and seemed to enjoy it,” says Suphala. After an hour or so, Parida and her husband called up a local forest officer. When he arrived, the animal was still playing with the swing. “The animal probably was having some fun. But we were more scared than amused,” says Suphala.

A few houses away, Sulochana Parida, a widow, is angry at the increasing encroachment of the elephants. About two years ago, her husband Birabara, a retired government official, had gone out early in the morning to relieve himself in the bushes behind their laterite stone-walled home. He had just come out of the bush when a female elephant that had strayed from the herd came charging and trampled the man in a matter of seconds. “He had no chance of escaping. The elephant stomped over his head and chest in fury,” says Sulochana. The elephant, apparently angry over the death of her four-year-old calf a few hours ago, vented her anger on an unsuspecting Parida.

In Nuapada village of Dhenkanal, 22-year-old Champati Behera was orphaned in May this year after a lone tusker attacked and killed her father Hari Behera, a landless labourer. He had been herding cows when the tusker went on a rampage. His mutilated body was found a few hours later.

Over the last decade, instances of human-elephant conflict have seen a sharp incline in Odisha. Elephants are highly intelligent, long-ranging animals, that need to move from one place to another in search of food. But with their trails broken by irrigation canals, factories, national highways and railway lines, increasingly, the animals are faced with multiple obstacles that have forced them to change their habitat patterns. “They are confused and angry over the disturbance in their habitats. This is leading to large-scale conflict between human and elephants in the state,” admits Siddhant Das, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) and chief wildlife warden of Odisha.

In 1979, there were 2,044 elephants in Odisha, mostly confined to the rich forested districts of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Angul, Dhenkanal, Sundargarh and Cuttack. Now reduced to 1,954, according to the 2015 census, the elephants have scattered across districts where people had never seen them in the past and have no knowledge about how to respond to them. “In Rasasing village, people are scared of leaving their homes after sunset. Elephants roam freely on the streets. It seems as if we have become outsiders in our own homes,” says Muralidhar Praida, an elderly resident.

While this conflict between the elephants and humans has become a way of life in Mayurbhanj, Sundargarh, Keonjhar, Angul, Sambalpur and Cuttack districts, in Dhenkanal, the human-elephant conflict has turned out to be the most ugly, with casualties on both sides being reported with alarming frequency. Of the 274 attacks by elephants between January 2014 and now, Dhenkanal alone has seen 68 cases.

From 81 elephants in 2002, Dhenkanal now has double the number of pachyderms; the animals are unable to cross over to other districts because of large-scale deforestation. While massive habitat destruction and industrialisation of Dhenkanal in the last decade have shrunk and fragmented elephant habitats, a 95-km long Rengali Right Bank Canal and 123-km-long Rengali Left Bank Canal scything through the elephant corridor has been a fatal blow to the pachyderms. Construction of the Rengali canals that would irrigate the twin districts of Dhenkanal and Angul started in 1994 and is almost on the verge of completion. When the canal was proposed in the Nineties, the forest department did not oppose it, but the then chief wildlife warden of Odisha had put up a note suggesting several ameliorative measures that would make the elephant crossing from one forest to another easier. “Why should the department have opposed it? These are essential for development of the state,” says Das, current chief wildlife warden.

While the canals are a boon to the farming community of the Dhenkanal, Angul, Keonjhr and Jajpur districts, it has caused only distress to the elephants, hindering their movement and confusing their sense of direction. The 50-ft wide and 20 -ft deep canal near the Mathargadi C reserve forest is a difficult one to cross over for the elephants even when the water is just six-seven feet deep. “Till 2006, we did not have any problems with elephants. The animals would move to the contiguous district of Keonjhar (where the number of elephants has seen a dip from 112 in 2002 to only 47 now). The problem became acute after the canal was dug up. When the canal would have 10-12 feet of gushing water, how would the elephants cross over to other nearby forests?” asks Arabinda Majhi, a villager of Hindol block in Dhenkanal.

Villagers in Dhenkanal, reeling under the attacks, are clueless about how to resolve the crisis. The villages are very close to reserve forests, sometimes less than half a kilometre away, and, in several cases, not so well-connected to the main road. The forest department has employed elephant squads comprising youths who chase away herds straying into human habitations. But their numbers are far too few to effectively deal with the large number of elephants. In Shadangi range of Dhenkanal, an elephant tracker, a contractual staff whose job is to herd off the straying elephants out of human habitations, complains that there is little for him in the job. “If the elephants go on a rampage, we would be the first one to die. But no one thinks of insuring our lives,” said the tracker, who gets Rs 6,000 a month.

Last week, much of Srikant Sahu’s three acres of paddy plantation in Kaluria village was trampled upon by a herd of elephants, that came from Kairibolua reserve forest in nearby Gondia block, on their way to Rupabalia reserve forest, where officials believe a large herd is present.

In Bedapada village of Dhenkanal’s Babandh block, farmer Akhila Majhi says it is futile to plough his five acres of land. Earlier, the elephants from the nearby hills used to raid his field only at the time of harvest. “Now, the elephants come even when we have just started ploughing and the paddy plants are not even knee-high. I slog in my field from morning and then spend sleepless nights driving the herd off my land at night. How long can this go on?” he asks. Scared of frequent elephant raids, Majhi’s neighbour Sushanta Sahu has not even ploughed his 16 acres of land. This year, 400 acres of land in Bedapada, a village of over 3,000, have remained fallow.

Wildlife experts had forewarned forest and wildlife departments that a violation of the biodiversity through unplanned mining, industrialisation, rampant laying of railway lines and developmental projects could bring things to such a pass. Elephant expert Dhriti K Lahiri-Choudhury first warned about the dangers of the irrigation canal in 1997-2000. Studies by elephant expert R Sukumar and wildlife scientist Kishore Choudhury over the last decade advocated the creation of crossing paths for elephants. Most of these advice went unheeded. In 1999, the then inspector general of wildlife in the Ministry of Environment and Forests wrote to the Odisha government to do a carrying capacity of mineral-rich Keonjhar district before continuing with any further mining. The letter was given a quiet burial, leading to indiscriminate mining that drove away all of Keonjhar’s elephants to neighbouring districts.

Pradipta Kumar Sahoo, divisional forest officer of Dhenkanal, says, “The food habits of the elephants in the region have changed. From foraging for plants and leaves in forests, the herds are now after paddy plants, sugarcane and stored paddy in people’s homes,” he says.

Most of these problems could have been taken care of had the government kept corridors and crossing paths inviolate in the elephant habitats. In January 2010, Odisha government had identified 14 corridors for a seamless passage of elephants across districts and states and all that remained to be done was a government notification under Environmental Protection Act, 1986. The office of the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) that was supposed to send the draft notification for finalisation has still not completed formalities, leaving the officials on ground to deal with rampaging elephants. The department also needs to build at least 30 elephant crossing paths (solid and wide bridges mimicking forested roads) across the wide irrigation canals and hundreds of Elephant Family Ramp — slopes that would arrest the sharp gradient — and allow the elephant to cross the irrigation canals in less water.

The forest department’s effort to curb the problem involves the service of elephant trackers, solar fencing, bright spotlights and elephant-proof trenches. Use of chilli bombs (a mixture of chilli powder, cowdung and firecrackers), solar fencing and hooters with bright lights have met with partial success. However, there are roadblocks aplenty. In Rasasing village, about a kilometre-long solar fencing erected about five months ago, has been abandoned halfway through due to lack of communication between villagers and officials.

Prachi Mehta, wildlife biologist and executive director of Pune-based Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, says, any one particular method would not work for an intelligent and highly adaptable animal like the elephant. “The forest department should train villagers in survival techniques. There should be public awareness about what to do and what not to when living in close proximity to these animals,” she says.

Wildlife Society of Odisha, an NGO, has done some novel experiments in reducing the human-elephant conflict in Dhenkanal. “Apart from bright lights, sirens and chilli fencing, we have also used low-cost concrete pillars to cover unprotected deep wells to prevent elephants from falling in it and dying,” says Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of the NGO and former member of National Board for Wildlife, “The government needs to scale up quickly.”

The other side of the human-elephant conflict has been equally perilous for the animals. From having almost 80 per cent of India’s elephant population in eastern India, Odisha has seen a dramatic decline in the population over the last six-seven years due to electrocution and poaching. In the last six years, 472 wild elephants have died in Odisha, of which 85 were killed by hunters through poisoning or bullets, 47 deliberately electrocuted by livewire while another 26 were accidentally killed by electrocution.

In Purunakatak area of Boudh district in May this year, well-equipped poachers from Narsinghpur made easy meat of a limping tusker, first shooting it dead and then hacking its trunk. Things would have gone undetected had the nine poachers not been confronted by jawans of anti-Maoist special force SOG. The body of the mutilated tusker was found the next day. Just three weeks before the Boudh poaching incident, the decomposed headless carcass of an adult tusker was found near Sapua Badajore reservoir in Hindol forest range of Dhenkanal forest division.

Forest and wildlife department figures show that the annual average number of elephant deaths in Odisha is rising every decade. While it was 33 between 1990 and 2000, it is now 70 between 2010 and 2016. Compared to Karnataka, the other pachyderm stronghold in India, Odisha is doing badly in terms of death rate. Between 2000 and 2016, Odisha lost 887 elephants while Karnataka lost 1,143 elephants. Karnataka with a total population of 6,072 jumbos has a death rate of 19 per cent while Odisha with 1,954 elephants has a death rate of 45 per cent.

Amid the mayhem, the wildlife department has been spectacularly clueless, often discovering the carcasses weeks after the death of the animal. In several cases, the officials have changed the sex of the deceased elephant to female to escape the opprobrium of the death of a tusker.

Wildlife experts say the rising fatality among elephants is putting the animal population at greater risk due to a paucity of breeding males. Currently, the number of breeding males in Odisha is around 150. “The low number of large breeding males will lead to inbreeding, resulting in the birth of unhealthy calves. Many of the males may not even survive,” says Mohanty. “Each year, on an average, 18 breeding males are killed and at this rate the large breeding elephants may come down to less than 50 in the next four years,” he says.

Among all the victims of the human-elephant conflict in Dhenkanal, 63-year-old Sankarshan Jena stands apart. On a wintry December morning in 2013, the former principal of Hindol College had left his modest home in Nuapara to go for a morning walk with his wife Veena and cousin. On their way back, they chanced upon a tusker on the road, standing 40-50 feet apart. Chased by people, the angry and confused tusker ran towards Jena and his wife, mauling Veena before escaping. Though grief-stricken by the loss, Jena is hardly bitter. At public meetings, he advocates a greater compassion for the beasts because much of the conflict is a result of the distressing situation the animals are facing. “By destroying forests, humans have invited this dangerous conflict. My wife’s death is a personal loss. If the human-elephant conflict stops, my wounds will heal, but I will continue to propagate the message of haathi ama saathi (the elephant is my friend)”.