It was a moonless night in October 2018, in the Dhenkanal district of Odisha, when elephant conservation in India experienced its darkest hour. A herd of thirteen elephants after raiding a paddy field at night were proceeding unsuspectingly towards the forest but disaster awaited them in the dark in the form of a sagging 11 KV power line. On first impact three of them fell instantly and died on the spot while four others struggled for life briefly, writhing in pain before collapsing pitifully in a ditch by the side of the road. The fact that this happened in an identified elephant movement corridor makes this incident even more unpardonable. One would have hoped that this soul scorching incident would have prompted some concrete steps by the authorities, but alas elephants continue to die from this man-made pandemic of electrocution and the number is rising every month.
The Asian Elephant is our national heritage animal and is an inseparable part of our history, culture and religion. Elephants have a key ecological role, they act as seed dispersers over long distances , help in creating clearings in the forests and reviving water bodies, essentially they are our biggest allies in the fight against climate change. Asian Elephants are classified as an endangered species because their populations have crashed over the last century due to indiscriminate destruction of forests and poaching. India holds the largest wild Asian Elephant population in the world. Their population was estimated to be around thirty thousand in 2012 which came down to 27,670 in the 2017 Census. In Africa and rest of Asia, the cause for maximum elephant deaths is poaching for their ivory tusks which carry immense value in the black market, however in India a silent killer is emerging which does not attract the same national attention as poaching.
It is estimated that India loses nearly fifty elephants from electrocution every year as 461 deaths have been documented in India between 2009 to 2017. Even this number is rising every year as in the last three years we have been losing an elephant nearly every third day. In the first three months of 2021 itself, India has lost 83 wild elephants and majority of them due to electrocution. Several areas like Odisha, North Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Southern Karnataka have become hotspots for such deaths. In July 2021 alone, seven magnificent elephants in the prime of their lives have been electrocuted from the two hotspots of Odisha and Kodagu district of Karnataka. The Elephant is a long lived mammal in nature with most of them living upto fifty years of age if given the right habitat and conservation. It is criminal to cut short their lives and their ecological role with a smoking 11 KV fuse.
To get to the solution, let us first understand the problem why so many elephants are getting electrocuted. Firstly, elephants are long ranging mammals that eat upto 300 Kg per day thus frequently need to migrate between forests and grazing grounds to ensure adequate food supply throughout the year. In recent times the elephant’s habitat has been bisected and broken into small fragments of their historic range. To migrate to different forest patches they have to cross farms, plantations, tea-estates, highways and even human settlements. Secondly, most elephant herds when deprived of natural habitat turn to raiding the farmlands bordering forests at night to supplement their diet, their favourite is paddy and they have even been known to partake country made liquor. Both these above cases result in human elephant conflict which has taken serious proportions of late. As per the figures revealed in the Rajya Sabha, human elephant conflict has caused more than three hundred elephant deaths and fourteen hundred human casualties between 2017 and 2020. To keep elephants off their crops, farmers resort to various measures such as keeping watch through watchtowers, beating drums and bursting crackers, some nefarious elements even resort to vile practices like installing spiked barriers with sharp nails or feeding them pineapple bombs as seen in a recent case that was highlighted nationally, however the most common method adopted by farmers/plantation owners is fencing their property with a live electric power line. Fences powered with direct current (DC) are allowed as they cause only a mild intermittent shock to the animals. However, most farmers resort to powering their farm fences with alternative current (AC) up to 220 volts that leads to immediate death. This is mainly because they borrow power illegally from pump houses or high voltage power lines without permission or supervision of electricity department. In many cases the switch handles of the 11 KV overhead power lines are not insulated, making it easy to connect live wires. This malpractice has resulted in the death of not just thousands of elephants, deer and wild boars but unsuspecting humans as well.
Finding solutions to this problems requires a holistic approach and some states and NGOs have had a reasonable degree of success in this field. The primary solution is to address the root cause of the problem and create long term sustainable habitats for elephants. The Govt of India has so far established 30 elephant reserves in 14 major elephant bearing states, however though they are legal entities, elephant reserves don’t enjoy the same level of protection as tiger reserves and national parks in India. There are recent examples of elephant reserves being compromised such as when the Uttarakhand Govt took the decision to de-notify Shivalik elephant reserve to make way for the expansion of Dehradun Airport and huge blocks of the Lemru elephant reserve in Chhattisgarh were auctioned for mining. The need of the hour is political will to enhance their protection status, just like the recent notification to upgrade Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and Chirang Ripu Elephant Reserve in Assam to Dehing Patkai National Park and Raimona National Park respectively by the Himanta Sarma led Assam Govt. National Park status would mean more budgets, stricter protection , monitoring and fast compensation to affected parties against damages caused to crops. The Elephant reserves of Singhbhum in Jharkhand, Mayurbhanj and Mahanadi in Odisha, Tamorpingla and Lemru in Chhattisgarh harbouring over a thousand elephants are in the most dire need of upgraded protection.
The second most important task is to secure the elephant migration corridors. The Wildlife Trust of India has been working on their landmark project ‘Right of Passage’ over the last one and a half decades that aims to secure 101 identified elephant corridors in India. So far they have successfully managed to secure six corridors through a combination of buying out private lands, setting aside community lands for elephants and ensuring protected area status for govt lands falling in these corridors. Another successful initiative is the ‘Haatibagan Community Forest Programme’ led by Dulu Bora, popularly known as the elephant man of Assam. Dulu along with Green Guard Nature Organisation set out to revive the degraded village forests in elephant corridors by planting trees and grasses palatable to elephants like banana, jackfruit , bamboo etc with the simple belief that if the elephants have enough to eat they won’t raid the crops. Initially the locals though of him as crazy but slowly his efforts bore fruit and today more than six hundred villagers follow Dulu into the forest to remove invasive weeds and plant elephant’s favourite fruit trees. The role of tea/coffee plantations cannot be discounted here as they are present across majority of elephant corridors. Elephants don’t eat tea or coffee plants still they are chased away from such properties due to the innate fear of property owners. However, over the years the concept of ‘elephant friendly’ tea/coffee has gained popularity and generated new demand in the market. A pioneer in this field is the Nuxalbari tea estate which not only allows safe passage to elephants, but also provides water holes for them to quench their thirst and cool their heels undisturbed. We as city residents can at least make our lifestyle choices in a way that helps endangered wildlife by supporting such initiatives.
Apart from the long term solutions, there are emergency short term solutions available for areas ravaged by human elephant conflict. In Africa, the practice of bee keeping in forest fringe villages has been successful in deterring elephants as well as earning extra income for the locals. Similarly, changing the cropping pattern from paddy to chilly, citrus, ginger, onion etc has saved the farmers from conflict. However if natural solutions are not working and farmers have to go for fencing then the fences should be legally powered with low voltage direct current. The use of advanced technology should be encouraged like solar powered fences and ‘energiser’ machines that increase the volts but ampere value remains less which ensures that the current is not life threatening. Simultaneously, there is an urgent need for authorities to crack down upon illegally electrified high voltage fences, just like Tamil Nadu govt carries out periodic inspections and punishes defaulting farmers by withdrawing free electricity. The rate of conviction in cases of elephant deaths from electrocution has also been abysmal in India which emboldens the criminals. However the recent cases of conviction and three years jail sentence for a farmer from Assam and two banana planters from Tamil Nadu in March 2021 have been hailed nationally and should be publicized widely to deter the defaulters
A new approach is emerging that involves fencing off the forests to solve this problem permanently such as solar powered hanging wires that has been deployed around the boundary of Saragur forest range of Karnataka and Manas National Park of Assam. These wires are hung from 25 feet poles beyond the reach of elephants and they receive a mild shock when they try to cross them. While such measures may be necessary for high conflict zones, they should not be encouraged as it will force the elephants to live in small forest patches, depleting their food sources and cutting off their migration routes which is against their basic nature. It is this myopic approach that is highlighted in the guidelines for human elephant conflict management released by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in 2020. The document glorifies and promotes conflict resolution by erecting barriers against elephant movement like concrete walls, fences and elephant proof trenches. Ironically, the document completely omits the elephant mortality from electrocution and how it can be prevented. The National Board of Wildlife has done better in this regard by coming up with a strategy for long term planning of electricity networks in a way that doesn’t harm wildlife like putting underground cables, lifting sagging lines and dismantling defunct electrified fences.
Lastly, but most importantly, India being a populous country with ever increasing population and ever shrinking wild places, it is imperative for us to rekindle our ancient relationship with elephants to have a future together. Be it the elephant God Ganesha, or the white elephant Airavata, elephants have always been revered in India, especially for the people living in or around forests who have regarded elephants as the supreme manifestation of God for thousands of years. That cultural connect is now getting severed in the younger generation which has forgotten the age old beliefs and feels no remorse in killing them. The revival of the ancient forgotten ritual of ‘hastibhog’ in Assam where a ceremonial burial is given to a dead elephant and shradh prayers are offered for the soul has led to a sea change in the attitude of villagers from raucously celebrating the death of a crop raider to silently mourning the passing of a revered entity. This World Elephant Day 2021, instead of token drawing competitions , poster making, social media posts, seminars and webinars on elephants, I appeal to the Govt and NGOs to start a campaign in the farms and villages bordering forests educating local people about elephants, their complex social lives, how they mourn their dead, their place in history and culture and thereby look to revive their empathy. It is ultimately this shift in attitude that will enable farmers to look for solutions to peaceful coexistence instead of conflict and secure the future of the Asian elephant in India.