Prasanta Kumar Dash
Bhubaneswar, August 12: Savage on elephant corridors in Odisha has intensified man-animal conflict across the state. Fully closure or intangible manmade barriers in as many as 9 existing elephant corridors in the forest-potential districts and the change of habitats in the other 5 well-identified elephant corridors in the non-forest districts have made the heritage animal stray away for an alternative and suitable environment. The biggest herbivorous pachyderm, on the verge of rapid change of habitat due to large-scale deforestation and rampant industrialisation, is facing an acute crisis for its existence and sustainability. On the other hand, human beings not only in the forest-encircled villages but in the urban suburbs are at stake, as herds of elephants are found rampaging here in search of safe living and easy grazing areas.
Odisha is home to at least 1,976 elephants, which is the highest for any state in the east-central region of India. According to the database of the Wildlife Institute of India, Chhattisgarh and Odisha jointly contribute 71 per cent (2,223) of the elephants of the entire eastern Indian region as of 2017. Later on, the population of elephants fluctuated a lot in them as the two states worked out on large-scale mining, destroying deep forests stretched across miles. As a result, elephants changed their locations and mainstays passing through the interstate corridors. According to the Keonjhar Forest Division in Odisha, Jharkhand-based elephants have been wreaking panic in the Telkoi, Badbil, Jhumpura and Anandpur areas in the district. Similarly, herds of elephants from the neighbouring Chhattisgarh are resulting in huge damage to standing crops in bordering Bargarh, Balangir and Jharsugura districts.
In January 2010, the Odisha government in collaboration with the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) had identified as may as 14 corridors which were facilitating the elephants’ easy transits to other adjoining habitats. Subsequently, the NGT urged the forest authorities to demark, notify and safeguard the corridors in view of the safe movement of elephants. The pre-existing corridors are Telkoi-Pallahara Corridor in Angul, Kuldiha-Hadgarh-Simlipal, connecting Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj, Kotgarh-Chandrapur, Badampahar-Karida, Deuli-Suliapada, Karo-Karampada, Maulabhanj-Jiridimal-Anantpur, Kanheijharan-Anantpur, Buguda-Nayagarh, Nuagan-Barunei, Tala-Phulagarh, Barapahad-Tarabha-Kantamal, Karlapat-Urladani and Badampahar-Dhobadhobin. These corridors stretched over 420.8 kilometres in length and spread over an area of 870 sq km, used to connect Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh forests with Odisha’s since the British era.
However, due to the loss of dense forests and erosion of bamboo groves, the elephant landscape in Odisha has been drastically disturbed in the last two decades in the districts which has seen rapid urbanisation due to large-scale industrial growth. Among almost 13 districts including Keonjhar, Angul, Dhenkanal, Jharsuguda and Cuttack, the habitat of elephants was worst affected by the demographic changes owing to the loss of forests and diversification of elephants’ transition. According to the reviews jointly conducted by the ANCF and Odisha Government, only four elephant corridors are at present feasible for remarkable elephant transitions. They are the Hadagarh-Kuldiha-Similipal Corridor, Buguda-Central RF Corridor, Tal-Kolgarh Corridor and Nuagaon-Baruni Corridor. However, the corridors are hardly witnessing passages of elephant herds during the migratory seasons due to manmade barriers and disturbances caused by railways, highways and the vast networks of power lines mounted inside the forests.
The Keonjhar district, which had 112 elephants in 2002, is left with only 40 now due to scattered ways of mining, and the Dhenkanal district, which had 81 elephants in 2002, now has 69, due to the green area fed by Rengali irrigation canals. Similarly, 70 odd elephants from the Chandaka sanctuary reportedly migrated to Ganjam, Nayagarh and Cuttack districts, and many of them were killed by trains and electrocution in Ganjam. Mining activities for coal, Iron Ore, Bauxite, Manganese etc in Keonjhar, Sundargarh, Jharsuguda and Angul have left no safe space for elephants, while illegal stone and minor-mineral quarries too have disturbed the elephant habitats and movement paths.
Angul district, which is the worst sufferer due to the curse of heavy industries, was once upon a time, a paradise for hundreds of elephants. Its mountain ranges covered with sal, Seesam, bamboos and other miscellaneous variants of floras, stretched from the Panchadhara valleys in the west near Athmallik was linked with the Malyagiri Forest in Pallahara, which is the significant part of the Telkoi-Pallahara Corridor. The corridor is worst affected by the intervention of coal mines, scattered over miles of sal forests. As many as sixteen opencast coal projects have bulldogged vast areas of sal jungles which were the safe homes of elephants. Deep excavation and hilly dumps following faulty mining activities in the forest lands have almost eaten up the elephant corridor that links the Chhendipada forests with Handapa, Rairkhol and Nakchi-Athmallik forest range which subsequently adjoins the Sambalpur Forest Division.
At present, the Samal, Rakasa-Bahala and Kaniha sal-rich forests which were much more conducive for the elephants in the past, are almost going out of any pachyderms. Similarly, the corridors present under the Chhendipada Forest Range are equally encroached by mines and bigger industrial establishments. The Brahmani Coal Project, the commission of JSPL, JITPL and Monet Ispat Ltd with a number of private coal belts, leased out for opencast mining operations, have almost decayed the forest resources of the Chhendipada range, which was one of the mid-ways for elephants’ movement all through the year.
With no environmental support, the elephants are found straying elsewhere for food & shelter and destroying human habitats and crops. Apart from the enormous damage to houses and loss of wealth, elephants are causing life threats for men and animals, barging into the residential areas, far from the natural greenery. As on record, 33 elephants on average were facing unnatural deaths per year between 1990 and 2000. It touched the 46-mark yearly between 2001 and 2010, which further increased to 76 elephant deaths since 2010. These deaths are due to poaching, electrocution and the toss of speeding trains during the movements of elephants while crossing forests, leaving away from the normal pass-ways.
After 2010, despite the vigil of the National Green Tribunal(NGT) elephant deaths and elephant attacks on men and animals have been on a stiff rise in Odisha due to the loss of the adjoining corridors. Forest and Environment Department’s data reveals that the death toll of elephants in the State in the nine years was 51 in 2009-10, 83 in 2010-11, 68 in 2011-12, 81 in 2012-13, 70 in 2013-14, 54 in 2014-15, 85 in 2015-16, 75 in 2016-17 and 78 in 2017-18. The toll now has drastically gone up due to the deepening man-animal conflicts recorded in the forest-adjoining villages. During the last few years, Angul district has lost 55 elephants whereas 59 valuable lives were lost here due to elephant attacks. Similarly, the Dhenkanal district has recorded the highest death of elephants next to Angul. The Hindol forest range is next to Angul, to witness the highest toll of elephant death and human causalities during the last few months. Apart from it, the frequent death of elephants at Kalrapat Wildlife Sanctuary in Kalahandi, Hadgad Forest in Keonjhar and the Similipal wildlife sanctuary in Mayurbhanj and Sambalpur forest division have raised the eyebrows of wildlife lovers. They have underlined the closure or encroachment of the elephant corridors to be the prime reason behind the pachyderm-man struggle for existence.
Former DFO JP Singh said Greenfield industries are now need of time. Segregation of elephant corridors and eviction of encroachments from them can rebuild a favourable habitat for the endangered species.
Environmentalist and Wildlife lover Shantwana Dash said a healthy Indian elephant needs a vast area to graze. Thus, it migrates miles away from one forest to another through an easier thoroughfare sought by it, for easy catch of leaves, stems, tubers and even water. However, the Odisha forest has lost its vegetation like bamboo, lemongrass and vena groves which are almost the favourite green fodders for the jumbos. Revival of the elephant corridors will be the first step ahead to salvage the endangered, Schedule-I giant wild species from extinction and human beings from its wrath.