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On the night of 4 September, a large tusker was electrocuted by a sagging high tension electric cable in Kaziranga national park, Assam.
Two large bull elephants emerged from flooded Kaziranga to reach high ground across the highway that borders the park, when one blundered into the electric wire. There was no way the animals could have seen it at night.
Sandesh Kadur, a wildlife filmmaker, who was in the area, says the cable was just 1.57 metres (5 feet 2 inches) off the ground. Successive years of waterlogging had eroded the base of the posts until they leaned at an angle, causing the lines to sag. Sandesh says the range officer, who was in the vicinity at the time of the accident, heard a loud explosion. When he shone his spotlight, he saw the tusker lying dead in the water, while the other had a lucky escape.
This is not a random unavoidable accident. Low electric wires booby trap elephants across their range in India.
In October 2014, a pair of elephants was killed in Darjeeling, West Bengal, by electrocution. In another case in Assam, villagers had repeatedly complained to the electricity company about sagging power cables. Nothing was done. Four elephants and a young boy were electrocuted in separate incidents.
In Orissa, back in 2011, the Wildlife Society of Orissa identified 147 locations where sagging lines posed a threat to wildlife. The power distribution companies claimed not to have funds to fix them and sought to use reafforestation money for this. Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of the society, says since 2013 electric lines in some parts of the state have been fixed. But more money is required to straighten the wires in the rest of the state.
Not only eastern India, elephants get electrocuted by low strung electric lines in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu too.
This is a straightforward case of negligence by state power distribution companies. In many parts of elephant country, electric lines don’t conform to the standard 6 metre (20 feet) height from the ground set by the Indian Electricity Rules.
Few state forest departments hold the power distribution companies responsible for endangering the lives of animals protected by the Wildlife Protection Act. And elephants continue to die needlessly across the country.
T.R. Shankar Raman of Nature Conservation Foundation says, “Electricity kills more elephants in parts of India than poachers do. In Karnataka, the number of elephants that are electrocuted is three to four times higher than poaching cases.” According to the Karnataka state Elephant Task Force report of 2012, 78 elephants died of electrocution in five years.
Most of these elephants are killed by farmers illegally drawing power from these overhead cables to create live wire fences around their crop fields. About a quarter die from bumping into these low-slung high-tension cables.
While a member of the National Board for Wildlife, Shankar Raman worked with a committee to prepare the ‘Guidelines for linear infrastructure intrusions in natural areas: roads and powerlines.’ It suggests,
For natural areas with presence of Asian elephants, Guideline #4.27 specifying minimum 6.6 metres above ground on level terrain (slope <20 degrees) and minimum 9.1 metres above ground on steeper terrain (slope >20 degrees) shall apply.”
This document remains a draft, ignored by the board and the Ministry of Environment and Forests. But these two institutions have no excuse for not doing anything.
The Elephant Task Force, headed by environmental historian and scholar Mahesh Rangarajan, submitted its report to the ministry five years ago. It recommended the height of power lines be increased, bare wires be converted to insulated cables, and the power companies be held responsible for inaction.
Raising the height of these lines isn’t impossible nor is it complicated. It’s been done before. In Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, power companies buried approximately 5 km of 11kV power line that was in the way of elephants. Similarly, in Kutch, Gujarat, after 400 flamingos hit overhead electric cables in 2011, the lines were laid underground for an 8-km stretch.
Instead of burying the cables in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, the state power distribution company strung an insulated cable for over 20 km up to MM Hills.
Both choices, burying cables or insulating them, provide added advantages. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to draw power illegally. It also saves arboreal species such as slender lorises and lion-tailed macaques. Electric cables strung through forests bifurcate animals’ habitats. When tree-dwelling species unwittingly use the wires as a bridge, they get electrocuted.
By the time Sandesh headed out of Kaziranga, the entire length of low hanging electric cable had been unhooked, and the workers of the electricity company were straightening the leaning posts. Sadly, it took the life of a magnificent animal to get these lines fixed.
How many more lives have to be lost before the other sections of sagging power lines are raised?