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Elephant Graveyard

Elephant Graveyard

In the eastern state of Odisha, a quiet carnage is claiming the lives of wild elephants. Since the year 2000, an estimated 150 of these giants have been killed by electrocution, either intentional or ‘accidental’.

Forest authorities and onlookers gather around the massive bodies of two elephants that were electrocuted by a 33 KV power line on October 12, 2015 in Odisha. Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Society of Orissa.

As the unrelenting march of civilisation devours wild habitats, wildlife either retreat to fragmented safe havens or succumb to conflict. For megafauna like elephants that have evolved to travel long distances and need copious quantities of food and water to sustain them… it is conflict that is near inevitable.

With mines and irrigation canals, towns and train tracks to negotiate, wild elephants in Odisha must contend with not just speeding trains and shrinking habitat, but, most alarmingly, the painful threat of electrocution. According to Biswajit Mohanty of the Wildlife Society of Orissa, between 2000 and 2010, 84 elephants were killed via electrocution, while the past five years claimed the lives of another 66. Of these 66, 25 were casualties of neglect – felled by sagging powerlines, and 41 were victims of malice – annihilated by live wire traps and electrified fences. In total, there have been 150 elephant deaths by electrocution in the past 15 years, most of which were avoidable had simple measures been taken.

The electrocutions have conveniently been divided into two categories, with deaths from live wire traps labelled as ‘deliberate electrocution’, such as in a case of poaching or retaliatory killing, and deaths from sagging power lines labelled as ‘accidental electrocution’. The two though are one and the same for power distribution companies and the Forest Department is well aware that sagging powerlines are electric deathtraps for passing elephants.

Given that the electrocution problem has persisted for nearly two decades, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in 2010 eyebrows were raised in the corridors of power and thus the Government of India commissioned a report on the issue. The four-member expert committee led by A.K. Biswal, then the Conservator of Forests, submitted a detailed report with a list of recommended steps to the Ministry of Environment and Forest, and the State Government in December 2010. But the report has gathered more dust than traction. In 2013, the Department of Energy sent a letter to all Collectors in the state on the ‘Guidelines for Elephant Corridor and shifting of lines from Government School and Anganwadi Centre’ in order to ‘provide space for the safe movement of the elephants without any hazard from the infrastructure of the electrical installations...’ but this too had little impact.

Had the Ministry and State taken cognisance of the committee report in 2010, many of the electrocution deaths of the past five years could have been avoided. Increasing patrolling during the harvest season, strengthening and maintaining a minimal ground-clearance level for power lines, fitting spikes on to electric poles, removing defunct solar fencing, directing electric companies to fix circuit breakers, providing compensation for crop depredation by wild elephants and prosecuting farmers who install illegal electric fences, were some of the simple steps that should have been immediately taken.

The tragic, anguished deaths of these elephants, a species hailed as India’s National Heritage Animal, must urgently be addressed. Odisha’s wild elephants need security from at least electrocution, if not from the many other difficulties that assail their kind.

This 11 KV power line in the Rambhadevi forest of the Deogarh district was strung so low that the person in the picture had to squat on his haunches to pass under it. For an elephant, the feat would be impossible.
Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Society of Orissa.

“When the elephant receives an electric shock it gives out a huge cry of distress, which brings the rest of the elephants of the herd and then they try to rescue the elephant but before they can do anything more, they trample the live wire on the ground and receive further shock and fall on the live wire leading to continuous passing of electricity through their body, resulting in further deaths. This process of death due to electrocution of the elephant may take quite some time as the animal is large in size.”

– ‘Report of the four-member committee of the MoEFF for enquiry into the cause of death of elephants due to electrocution in Orissa’, December 15, 2010.

On September 19, 2015, the body of this electrocuted elephant was discovered in Palikateni village in the district of Dhenkanal in Odisha. Photo Courtesy: Wildlife Society of Orissa.

IN 55 DEADLY DAYS

(1) September 28, 2015: An adult male elephant was electrocuted in Badakheta village, Purunakote Forest Range of the Satkosia Sanctuary, Angul. The postmortem revealed that the male was electrocuted by a naked electric wire, which was later found to have been fixed by farmers as a fence around their farmland.

(2) October 1, 2015: An adult female was electrocuted by a sagging 11 KV power line in between Katapali and Saradhapanka villages, near the Naibuga Reserved Forest, Champua Forest Range, Keonjhar.

(3) October 3, 2015: An adult female of about 30 years of age was electrocuted in Brahmanbasta, Khuntuni Forest Range, Athagarh Forest Division, Cuttack. This happened as the female along with her herd raided a crop field, and touched a 11 KV line strung on a weak and leaning electric pole without spikes.

(4) October 12, 2015: Two female elephants, an adult and her calf, were electrocuted in between Gunudei and Baniabhoi village besides Rengali Right Canal, Sadar Forest Range, Dhenkanal by a sagging 33 KV electric transmission line.

(5) October 23, 2015: Two elephants, both adult females, were electrocuted near Unani village under Ambabhana block, in Bhatli Forest Reserve, Bargarh by a live wire laid by poachers to hunt wild boars. Power to the electric trap was drawn from a nearby 11 KV electric line.

(6) Around October 26, 2015: A 15-year-old, adult, pregnant female was electrocuted near Sheramunda village, Narsinghpur East Range, Athagarh Forest Division, Cuttack. This happened when a dangerously low 220 KV high power transmission line belonging to Orissa Power Transmission Corporation Ltd. got entangled in a bamboo grove in which the elephant was feeding.

(7) November 22, 2015: Two adults, both females of about 25 to 30 years, were electrocuted near Bahiramuhan village, Brahmani Panchayat, near Tithipali Reserve Forest, Sonepur. The two were electrocuted by a solar fence to which some villagers had connected a power line from a transformer about 350 m. away.

Action/Involvement:

GET INVOLVED!

Odisha’s wild elephant population desperately needs to be protected from electrocution. The solutions are simple and within reach but require the proactive involvement of Central and State authorities. Please write to the centrally-sponsored Project Elephant and the Chief Minister of Odisha requesting urgent intervention before any more elephants are electrocuted. Here are some points you can include:

1. The recommendations of the 2010 expert committee report should be implemented on a priority basis.

2. The State Government must ensure that power distribution companies maintain their networks in accordance with the law. This means including a sufficient number of fuses and circuit breakers into the power lines, and ensuring a minimum height is enforced on all lines.

3. The Odisha Forest Department must dismantle all defunct power fences to prevent poachers from using them to create livewire traps.

4. It should be ensured that the Forest Department and the Electricity Department cooperate and coordinate with one another to address the electrocution problem.

Address your letters to:

R.K. Srivastava, IFS

IGF & Director, Project Elephant, Government of India

Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change,

Indira Paryavaran Bhavan, Aliganj, Jor Bagh Road,

New Delhi – 110003.

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Shri. Naveen Patnaik

6R/3, Unit 6, Forest Park,

Bhubaneshwar Odisha – 751006.

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A Sanctuary Asia report, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 2, February 2016.

 
 
 

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