Felling Kalapat’s Forests: The Last Safe Haven For The Elephants Of Keonjhar
The pachyderms of Odisha continue to face habitat loss as the state gears up to fell trees in Kalapat Forest Reserve. The reserve, spread over 220 sq. km., falls under the Telkoi Forest Range and is one of the last untouched elephant habitats in the Keonjhar district.
Photo: Biswajit Mohanty.
The slashing of trees in Kalapat began in 2016, when the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) approved the felling of trees in accordance with the working plan of the forest division. As per the order, the felling will be resumed post the monsoon season.
Due to rampant mining in Keonjhar district over the last three decades, the local elephant population fell from 112 elephants in 2002 to a mere 47 in 2015. As large-scale industrialisation destroyed elephant corridors and habitats, the Telkoi Forest Range became one of the last refuges for the elephants of the district.
The Telkoi Forest Range constitutes one of the 14 crucial elephant corridors recognised by the Government of India – The Telkoi-Pallahara elephant corridor. This corridor connects the Mahabirod Forest Range of Dhenkanal to the Pallahara range of Deogarh, providing safe passage to migrating elephants. Kalapat Forest Reserve is the largest protected area of the Teloki Range. With resplendent sal trees and the perennial Samakoi river, Kalapat provides ideal habitat for elephants.
As a greater part of Keonjhar district has already been ravaged barren by coal and sand mining, the state’s decision to fell trees in Kalapat is nothing short of baffling. It will not only affect the state’s dwindling elephant population, but will also negatively impact the Brahmani river—the region’s main source of freshwater for its people as well as the wildlife.
Biswajit Mohanty, winner of the Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award 2001 who heads the Wildlife Society of Orissa, has opposed the MoEFCC’s order. He argues that the order was passed without an assessment of the impact the felling of trees would have on the resident elephant population.
"It is a foolish decision to permit felling of trees in this wonderful patch of forest, which coincidentally is the last viable elephant habitat in the disturbed mining district of Keonjhar. In light of the acute Human-Elephant Conflict in the state, the approval for commercial activity must be withdrawn by the MoEFCC. Let the vast stretch of Kalapat continue to be a safe haven for endangered elephants,” said Mohanty.
Meanwhile, the Deputy Forest Officer (DFO) of Keonjhar Forest Division, Rohit Kumar Lenka, denies that Kalapat is one of the last remaining crucial elephant habitats in the district of Keonjhar.
“The elephants face no threat”, claims Kumar. “The felling of trees is taking place as per the working forest plan, and therefore there is no need for any impact assessment”, he argues.
The Forest Working Plan was a concept introduced by the British for extraction of timber/firewood in colonial India. Even decades after independence, the practice remains in place. Every state prepares a working plan for each forest division, delineating all information regarding forest reserves in the division, including the number and species of trees. The mature trees are then marked and listed by the forest guards. The felling is conducted every year, as per the list, approved by the Central Government.
Conservationist Aditya Panda denounces such ‘outdated forestry practices’. Expressing his disapproval he says, “ Sal is a slow growing, broad-leaved tree that grows for centuries. To fell a sal forest is absolute conservation sacrilege”.
Panda comes down hard on the Odisha Forest Department . “It is shocking that the forest department is felling prime sal forests at a time when protecting natural forests and native flora is a priority globally. Outdated forestry practices of felling native, natural species of trees and replacing them by quick growing introduced invasive species are being condemned globally today. However, this seems to be the standard practice of the Odisha Forest Department and some other state forest departments that have been constantly reporting increasing forest cover through such fraudulent methods” he says.
“This area is extremely crucial from a large mammal conservation perspective in Odisha--be it elephants or tigers” says Panda reiterating the significance of the Keonjhar-Kalpat area. “It is one of the largest, intact tracts of forest in the state and connects the Similipal tiger/elephant landscape with the Satkosia tiger/elephant landscape. It also connects both these tiger landscapes with Jharkhand's Saranda forest. The region is a direct sink habitat for Similipal's spillover tigers which, unfortunately, have been dispersing into this landscape and vanishing without trace,” he says.
Calling for an immediate halt to the felling activities, Panda goes one step further by appealing to the Govt. of Odisha to take prompt steps to notify the area as a wildlife sanctuary. However, conservationists believe that the state government is unwilling to take swift measures to notify new protected areas due to strong opposition from the powerful mining lobby in the state.
Author: Anadya Singh