The prosperous bio-diversity and diverse eco-system make Orissa a unique place. However, its amazing wildlife and unique eco-system are battling for survival, thanks to the government apathy besides the rapid climate change, the toxic taste of accumulating chemical pollution, and the so-called development through industrialisation. Of all the animals in the wild, elephants are becoming easy preys to the senseless mining and poaching activities. The state’s elephant population of 1862 as on date, would be seriously threatened, if mega bauxite and iron ore mines and metal industries proposed in the areas of elephant habitats are not properly monitored.
It is strange that with nearly 40 per cent posts comprising 900 forest guards, 986 foresters and 208 range officers of the Forest and Environment Department of Orissa lying vacant, the state government claims to have done everything to protect elephants. The alarming rate of death of 20 elephants in the last six months negates the claims made by the government.
In a high-power meeting convened by the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment on November 5, 2009, the centre urged upon the state governments of Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to prepare an action plan for giving protection to the elephants and to create an atmosphere through which both the elephants and human beings could live without having any conflict
between them. Since then, neither have the high-power committee’s recommendations been carried out nor have the state governments paid any heed to it, despite centre’s commitment to provide necessary financial assistance for the cause of the elephants.
The analysis of the 11th Five Year Plan in Orissa reveals that though the state government has indeed started the “Project Elephant”, there has been no substantial sanction of money to run it. The government is yet to demarcate a safe zone for the elephants, though the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who holds the forest portfolio, has declared the formation of about three elephant reserves in Mayurbhanj, and Sambalpur in the State Assembly on November 23, 2009. Speaking about the safety and the management of these elephant corridors, he hinted at a five-year long-term action plan with a sanction of Rs. 5360 lakh.
There is no denying the fact that there has been considerable decrease in the elephant habitation of the state. As a result of mining in the forest area, the number of natural habitat for the elephant has been reduced. The wildlife wing of the state forest department has identified 15 roads used by the elephants. Industrialisation, illegal mining responsible for the decrease in the forest area are stated to be the reasons for the decline of elephant habitats in the state.
As per the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) tabled in the State Assembly, the rate of elephant death, which was 32 per year during 1990-2003 increased to 56 per cent during 2003-2008. As many as 280 pachyderms died during the period from 2002 to 2007. Despite the centre’s request in June 2002, the state government did not prepare any prospective plan and the scheme was implemented through ad hoc annual plan affecting systematic management of elephant reserves, said the CAG report.
Another reason stated to have caused the death of elephants in Orissa is the man-elephant conflict. The Chief Minister in his reply to a question in the State Assembly stated about the formation of 51 squads to ward off elephants coming to the human habitation. The state government has been claiming to put barriers like the live electric wire-fencing, digging up trenches to prevent elephants from crossing over and running awareness programmes amongst the people besides providing a compensation of Rs 1000 per acre destroyed by elephants. But the fact remains that there is no comprehensive plan of action and there is no definite policy for protection and conservation of wildlife in Orissa. The state which was a home to 74 per cent of elephants in eastern India and 10 per cent of country’s tusker population does not have a special task force to check poaching and destruction of habitats. This becomes clear that the State Board of Wildlife constituted in September 2003 to meet at least twice a year for advising the state government on formulation of policy for protection and conservation of wildlife met only once. Besides a new body constituted way back in October 2004 for a two-year term did not convene any meeting till date.
Apart from the government laxity, the presence of 100 open cast iron ore mines covering over 60,000 hectares of land area in operation and maximum area under illegal operation within Keonjhar forest division, the Baitrani Elephant Reserve in Keonjhar, has resulted in elephant death, man-animal conflicts and new-born and small calves being separated from their groups. It needs strategic plans to save elephants and reduce the man-animal conflicts.
It is an accepted fact that the causes of decline in elephant population are encroachment, poaching, mining and increase in human population, but neither the government nor the people take enough care to address the issue. It is true that loss in bio-diversity takes a toll on food chain resulting in health and nutrition of human and other animals. The Biodiversity Board of Orissa organised in April 2009 is yet to be functional, for the government does not have any machinery to monitor and develop plans for
wild animals like elephant and tiger. Sanctuaries or proposals to have corridors are not the answer. The answer perhaps lies in the government’s determination to conserve and protect forest and wildlife.
The determination is not there is clear from the fact that despite the Chief Minister’s assurance on September 15, 2009, in a high-level meeting that the government would revamp the entire mechanism for the purpose, nothing has yet been done. It was decided that in order to provide proper passage to the pachyderms to travel in the forest, the state government would revamp the virtual defunct elephant corridors. As per the plans nine such corridors would be revived and some new passages would be earmarked. Steps would also be taken to provide security to the elephants where they reside. Till the forest officials and the government machineries wake up from the deep slumber and till the mines activities stop in forest areas, the elephants can wait. But is that fair?
By Satyendra Patnaik from Bhubaneswar