Sunday, 29 May 2011

Endangered Walk on Earth

A bullet-shot carcass of an elephant was found in Cuttack district's Athagarh division recently. Poachers had removed half of its tusks using sharp weapons. Four days later, when police and forest sleuths arrested the mastermind, they faced a retaliation which was unheard of in the region. A gang of 10 gun-toting miscreants barged into the local forest range office the same night and took the poacher away, surprising the armed police force guarding the premises.
                   Such an incident was startling,"admits chief Wildlife Warden P N Padhi who had personally supervised the case. With organised poaching gangs operating in a brazen manner, elephants are anything but safe in Orissa. The last 10 years have seen over 100 of them falling prey to poachers.
                  Similipal National Park epitomises the crisis. The protected area alone saw more than 20 elephants killed in just two years though wildlife activists say the actual number could be double or more. Maoist fear in the park has prevented forest officials from regular conservation while smugglers from the Northeast with the help of local elements have wreaked havoc in the park which boasts over 330 pachyderms. "Such is the attack on the tuskers that the male-female ration is precariously low in Similipal. A sex ratio of 1:3 is normal. In Similipal,it is close to 1:8 which could prove disastrous", says a forest official.
                  Last year, an NTCA team found gross absence of infrastructure, manpower and motivation in the enforcement squads to take on the poachers. "Even some people engaged in the protection work were found to have tipped off the poachers about the location of elephants. They had to be laid off ", say Forest Department sources.
                  Vanoo Mitra Acharya, president of Similipal Tiger Protection Force, a local conservation group, says the state government has done nothing to establish an intelligence network in the 1,194 sq km core area of Similipal. Some protection camps have only 30 percent staff strength but no vehicle. How do the forest staff take on the poachers, he wonders.
                  But it is not poaching alone; the number of elephants electrocuted has now caught up with the poaching figures. Between 2004-2005 and 2009-2010. 54 elephants fell to poaching while 51 died of electrocution. Last October, Union Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh shot off a letter to Cheif Minister Naveen Patnaik expressing concern as the number of electrocution deaths soared past 20 in just two years.
                  In Orissa, one of the major elephant habitats of eastern India, a jumbo's life is not easy. Tuskers form about 23 percent of the elephant population (standing at 1,886 as per 2010 census) making them the most sought after by poachers, while increaasing depredation caused by fragmented habitations-thanks to growing mining, industrialisation and urbanisation-has made them a new enemy of the villagers.
                 Northern Orissa districts have been the death traps for the jumbos with the most electrocution deaths. Keonjhar alone, the state's mineral heart land, reported 21 such deaths between 2001-2002 and 2009-2010. Loss of corridors and food base have prompted the long ranging animals to head towards farmlands and habitations. Earlier this year, a herd of 60 elephants landed in the Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary of Balasore district, travelling about 200 km from the West Bengal and Jharkhand border. The Forest Department had a tough task handling them and the local villagers whose crop they feasted on an houses they trampled.
                Statistics reveal that 70% of wild animal depredation reported in Orissa are caused by elephants. Reasons enough why retaliatory killings have been on the rise in recent times though sagging electric lines have been a major cause of death. In Dhenkanal Forest Division, the elephants have killed at least 20 locals in one year, five of them alone in Sarangi Forest Range. In the last one year, this division recorded 13 elephant deaths, three of them due to electrocution.
               To pacify the locals, the Orissa Government has decided to hike the compensation on loss of life and damage to crop.The exgratia of Rs 1 lakh for a human death will soon be raised to Rs 2 lakh while compensation for crop loss per acre will be raised from Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000. With the hike promised, the Government will have to cough up double the amount.
              The Government has also put in the place a Rs 50 crore elephant management plan to be implemented over five years. A major component of the plan includes habitat improvement under which the Forest Department has identified 14 major and nine small migration corridors. "We will study land use pattern of the corridors so that we can restore them", the Chief Wildlife Warden says. But the challenge in elephantine.

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