How the elephant crossed a bridge and other tales from Odisha’s forests

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Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhari

THE DAY Jairam Ramesh declared the elephant as a ‘national heritage animal’, the Union Minister for Environment and Forests also gave clearance to a major irrigation project in Nayagarh district, Odisha. Amidst all this, everybody seemed to overlook a minor detail — the project will submerge a traditional migration route of the elephants of Baisipalli Wildlife Sanctuary, Nayagarh. No, it’s not another reason to stop a development project. The Odisha government insists they have a solution — they can build an overpass or an underpass for the pachy-derms. It’s a different issue that neither do elephants change their routes, nor are they known to use a man-made structure or follow road signs!

Proposed a decade ago, the Brutanga (Major) Irrigation Project will be constructed across Brutanga, a tributary of the Mahanadi. Along with irrigating more than 20,000 hectares, it will affect about 600 families and submerge 1,524 hectares of forest land, which includes the stretch that elephants use to migrate to the jungles in southern Odisha. The government has also proposed a 12 km long canal to send water from Brutanga reservoir to Kuanria reservoir, 9 km from the nearest town, Daspalla.

“As it is, construction of the Rengali barrage has stopped elephants from migrating north. After the construction of the Brutanga dam and the canal, they will be barred from migrating south. The area will virtually become an island if the state goes ahead with the project,” claims Aditya Panda of Wild Odisha, an NGO that initiated the ‘Brutanga Campaign’. Panda has been voicing against the Brutanga project since its proposal. Based on a report by Lahiri Choudhury and CK Sar published in the Indian Forester in 2002, Aditya adds that submergence of the migration route will disable the mixing and interbreeding of herds north of the Mahanadi with those in the south, essential for the survival of both.

Neither do elephants change routes, nor are they known to use a man-made structure or follow road signs

Baisipalli sanctuary comes under the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve (ER), one of the four ERs proposed by the Odisha government. Even though the Ministry of Environment and Forests has accepted the proposal for the Mahanadi ER, the area hasn’t been earmarked till date. “Since Brutanga is not a perennial river, the Baisipalli sanctuary will face acute water shortage in summer. Hence, elephant-human conflict will escalate,” says Panda. Adjacent to Baisipalli sanctuary is Satkosia Tiger Reserve over two adjoining wildlife parks: the Satkosia Gorge sanctuary and Baisipalli sanctuary. Spread over four districts, the reserve is a critical tiger habitat. The Elephant Task Force has suggested that “elephant corridors that facilitate movement of multi-mega species (tiger, leopard, rhino and gaur) should be secured in coordination with the National Tiger Conservation Authority and other such agencies”. Apart from tigers, Satkosia is a habitat of two endangered fresh-water crocodile species — the Gharial and the Mugger. “This project will be a disaster for both tigers and elephants in what I unofficially call the Pan-Odisha Tiger Elephant Landscape,” says Panda.

Though construction of overpasses in forested land is not new, they have rarely been custom built for elephants. Till date, there is no documented proof of the success of these structures in India. Experts believe that these have to be intelligently built and camouflaged into the elephant habitat, as anything unusual, even a unfamiliar incline, will deter elephants from using them. This July, railway officials, in association with West Bengal Forest Department officials, proposed to construct overpasses and underpasses for elephants to safely cross the fatal train line between New Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar in North Bengal. At least 30 elephants have died in accidents here in the past 10 years.

THE FIGURES in other elephant corridors in the country are not promising either. According to Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), 110 elephant deaths due to train accidents have been recorded since 1987. Ninety percent of these deaths have occurred in the past two decades in Assam, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. Just a quick reminder — Bholu, the elephant, is the official mascot of the Indian Railways.

WTI manager Sandeep Kumar Tiwari is cynical about such proposals. “Never have elephant herds been spotted using it, especially when female elephants travel with their young ones. Only males are infrequently seen using them, that too, when they are alone,” Tiwari says.

The Elephant Task Force, in its long list of recommendations, has also suggested starting regional Gajah (elephant in Sanskrit) centres, to educate people about elephant behaviour, ecology and conservation for the peaceful co-existence of elephants and humans. Hopefully, the protectors of this mighty ‘national heritage’ will dedicate as much efforts towards knowing and understanding it themselves. Good Luck Gajah!

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TASK FORCE RECOMMENDATIONS

 POLICY

Formulate a National Elephant Conservation Authority, similar to the National Tiger Conservation Authority

>  Implement Five-Year Management Plan to achieve aims of Project Elephant, with midterm and end-term evaluation

>  Unwise civil works can be damaging to conservation goals

ANTI-POACHING

Fast-track Special Courts for wildlife crime

>  Sale/transfer/gift of elephants are condemned. Elephants in circuses should be banned

> Culling herds of elephants as a policy is unethical

 HUMAN-ELEPHANT CONFLICT

Twice a year public hearings in elephant corridors with wildlife officials and MLAS

>  Ex-gratia relief for loss of human life to be Rs. 3 lakh

AWARENESS

>   Initiate the Haathi Mere Saathi campaign for children and policy makers

Propose a United Nations Day for elephants

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