Hanging with the Elephants (Odisha, India)


Debabrata Mohanty, The Indian Express

Date Published

On September 5, moments after a herd of elephants got stuck on an
island on the swelling Baitarani river on the borders of Keonjhar and
Mayurbhanj districts of Odisha, the loud trumpeting of the animals
resonated in nearby villages. Scores of villagers from Erendei in
Keonjhar district soon flocked to the riverbank, some with sacks of
paddy and sugarcane and others with prayers on their lip. A herd of
eight elephants from Similipal tiger sanctuary in Mayurbhanj district
was stuck on the island while trying to rescue a three-month-old
elephant calf that was almost washed away in the surging river
current. In the end, the elephants did cross over to safety, but not
before villagers kept vigil overnight and conducted poojas for their
safe passage.

But hundreds of kilometres away in Dhenkanal district, people are
spending sleepless nights in fear of the same elephants. In Rasasing
village, housewife Suphala Parida did not expect the mammals to bring
the three-day festival of Raja to a halt in June this year. As evening
set in, a group of women had gathered to relive the fun they had had
at the festival. It was around then that an intruder announced its
presence — a tusker was out foraging for food. It broke a few branches
from a mango tree, searched for paddy and then got drawn to a swing.
“It was pushing the swing with its trunk and seemed to enjoy it,” says
Suphala. After an hour or so, Parida and her husband called up a local
forest officer. When he arrived, the animal was still playing with the
swing. “The animal probably was having some fun. But we were more
scared than amused,” says Suphala.

A few houses away, Sulochana Parida, a widow, is angry at the
increasing encroachment of the elephants. About two years ago, her
husband Birabara, a retired government official, had gone out early in
the morning to relieve himself in the bushes behind their laterite
stone-walled home. He had just come out of the bush when a female
elephant that had strayed from the herd came charging and trampled the
man in a matter of seconds. “He had no chance of escaping. The
elephant stomped over his head and chest in fury,” says Sulochana. The
elephant, apparently angry over the death of her four-year-old calf a
few hours ago, vented her anger on an unsuspecting Parida.

In Nuapada village of Dhenkanal, 22-year-old Champati Behera was
orphaned in May this year after a lone tusker attacked and killed her
father Hari Behera, a landless labourer. He had been herding cows when
the tusker went on a rampage. His mutilated body was found a few hours

Over the last decade, instances of human-elephant conflict have seen a
sharp incline in Odisha. Elephants are highly intelligent,
long-ranging animals, that need to move from one place to another in
search of food. But with their trails broken by irrigation canals,
factories, national highways and railway lines, increasingly, the
animals are faced with multiple obstacles that have forced them to
change their habitat patterns. “They are confused and angry over the
disturbance in their habitats. This is leading to large-scale conflict
between human and elephants in the state,” admits Siddhant Das,
principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) and chief wildlife
warden of Odisha.

In 1979, there were 2,044 elephants in Odisha, mostly confined to the
rich forested districts of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Angul, Dhenkanal,
Sundargarh and Cuttack. Now reduced to 1,954, according to the 2015
census, the elephants have scattered across districts where people had
never seen them in the past and have no knowledge about how to respond
to them. “In Rasasing village, people are scared of leaving their
homes after sunset. Elephants roam freely on the streets. It seems as
if we have become outsiders in our own homes,” says Muralidhar Praida,
an elderly resident.

While this conflict between the elephants and humans has become a way
of life in Mayurbhanj, Sundargarh, Keonjhar, Angul, Sambalpur and
Cuttack districts, in Dhenkanal, the human-elephant conflict has
turned out to be the most ugly, with casualties on both sides being
reported with alarming frequency. Of the 274 attacks by elephants
between January 2014 and now, Dhenkanal alone has seen 68 cases.

From 81 elephants in 2002, Dhenkanal now has double the number of
pachyderms; the animals are unable to cross over to other districts
because of large-scale deforestation. While massive habitat
destruction and industrialisation of Dhenkanal in the last decade have
shrunk and fragmented elephant habitats, a 95-km long Rengali Right
Bank Canal and 123-km-long Rengali Left Bank Canal scything through
the elephant corridor has been a fatal blow to the pachyderms.
Construction of the Rengali canals that would irrigate the twin
districts of Dhenkanal and Angul started in 1994 and is almost on the
verge of completion. When the canal was proposed in the Nineties, the
forest department did not oppose it, but the then chief wildlife
warden of Odisha had put up a note suggesting several ameliorative
measures that would make the elephant crossing from one forest to
another easier. “Why should the department have opposed it? These are
essential for development of the state,” says Das, current chief
wildlife warden.

While the canals are a boon to the farming community of the Dhenkanal,
Angul, Keonjhr and Jajpur districts, it has caused only distress to
the elephants, hindering their movement and confusing their sense of
direction. The 50-ft wide and 20 -ft deep canal near the Mathargadi C
reserve forest is a difficult one to cross over for the elephants even
when the water is just six-seven feet deep. “Till 2006, we did not
have any problems with elephants. The animals would move to the
contiguous district of Keonjhar (where the number of elephants has
seen a dip from 112 in 2002 to only 47 now). The problem became acute
after the canal was dug up. When the canal would have 10-12 feet of
gushing water, how would the elephants cross over to other nearby
forests?” asks Arabinda Majhi, a villager of Hindol block in

Villagers in Dhenkanal, reeling under the attacks, are clueless about
how to resolve the crisis. The villages are very close to reserve
forests, sometimes less than half a kilometre away, and, in several
cases, not so well-connected to the main road. The forest department
has employed elephant squads comprising youths who chase away herds
straying into human habitations. But their numbers are far too few to
effectively deal with the large number of elephants. In Shadangi range
of Dhenkanal, an elephant tracker, a contractual staff whose job is to
herd off the straying elephants out of human habitations, complains
that there is little for him in the job. “If the elephants go on a
rampage, we would be the first one to die. But no one thinks of
insuring our lives,” said the tracker, who gets Rs 6,000 a month.

Last week, much of Srikant Sahu’s three acres of paddy plantation in
Kaluria village was trampled upon by a herd of elephants, that came
from Kairibolua reserve forest in nearby Gondia block, on their way to
Rupabalia reserve forest, where officials believe a large herd is

In Bedapada village of Dhenkanal’s Babandh block, farmer Akhila Majhi
says it is futile to plough his five acres of land. Earlier, the
elephants from the nearby hills used to raid his field only at the
time of harvest. “Now, the elephants come even when we have just
started ploughing and the paddy plants are not even knee-high. I slog
in my field from morning and then spend sleepless nights driving the
herd off my land at night. How long can this go on?” he asks. Scared
of frequent elephant raids, Majhi’s neighbour Sushanta Sahu has not
even ploughed his 16 acres of land. This year, 400 acres of land in
Bedapada, a village of over 3,000, have remained fallow.

Wildlife experts had forewarned forest and wildlife departments that a
violation of the biodiversity through unplanned mining,
industrialisation, rampant laying of railway lines and developmental
projects could bring things to such a pass. Elephant expert Dhriti K
Lahiri-Choudhury first warned about the dangers of the irrigation
canal in 1997-2000. Studies by elephant expert R Sukumar and wildlife
scientist Kishore Choudhury over the last decade advocated the
creation of crossing paths for elephants. Most of these advice went
unheeded. In 1999, the then inspector general of wildlife in the
Ministry of Environment and Forests wrote to the Odisha government to
do a carrying capacity of mineral-rich Keonjhar district before
continuing with any further mining. The letter was given a quiet
burial, leading to indiscriminate mining that drove away all of
Keonjhar’s elephants to neighbouring districts.

Pradipta Kumar Sahoo, divisional forest officer of Dhenkanal, says,
“The food habits of the elephants in the region have changed. From
foraging for plants and leaves in forests, the herds are now after
paddy plants, sugarcane and stored paddy in people’s homes,” he says.

Most of these problems could have been taken care of had the
government kept corridors and crossing paths inviolate in the elephant
habitats. In January 2010, Odisha government had identified 14
corridors for a seamless passage of elephants across districts and
states and all that remained to be done was a government notification
under Environmental Protection Act, 1986. The office of the principal
chief conservator of forests (wildlife) that was supposed to send the
draft notification for finalisation has still not completed
formalities, leaving the officials on ground to deal with rampaging
elephants. The department also needs to build at least 30 elephant
crossing paths (solid and wide bridges mimicking forested roads)
across the wide irrigation canals and hundreds of Elephant Family Ramp
— slopes that would arrest the sharp gradient — and allow the elephant
to cross the irrigation canals in less water.

The forest department’s effort to curb the problem involves the
service of elephant trackers, solar fencing, bright spotlights and
elephant-proof trenches. Use of chilli bombs (a mixture of chilli
powder, cowdung and firecrackers), solar fencing and hooters with
bright lights have met with partial success. However, there are
roadblocks aplenty. In Rasasing village, about a kilometre-long solar
fencing erected about five months ago, has been abandoned halfway
through due to lack of communication between villagers and officials.

Prachi Mehta, wildlife biologist and executive director of Pune-based
Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, says, any one particular
method would not work for an intelligent and highly adaptable animal
like the elephant. “The forest department should train villagers in
survival techniques. There should be public awareness about what to do
and what not to when living in close proximity to these animals,” she

Wildlife Society of Odisha, an NGO, has done some novel experiments in
reducing the human-elephant conflict in Dhenkanal. “Apart from bright
lights, sirens and chilli fencing, we have also used low-cost concrete
pillars to cover unprotected deep wells to prevent elephants from
falling in it and dying,” says Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of the NGO
and former member of National Board for Wildlife, “The government
needs to scale up quickly.”

The other side of the human-elephant conflict has been equally
perilous for the animals. From having almost 80 per cent of India’s
elephant population in eastern India, Odisha has seen a dramatic
decline in the population over the last six-seven years due to
electrocution and poaching. In the last six years, 472 wild elephants
have died in Odisha, of which 85 were killed by hunters through
poisoning or bullets, 47 deliberately electrocuted by livewire while
another 26 were accidentally killed by electrocution.

In Purunakatak area of Boudh district in May this year, well-equipped
poachers from Narsinghpur made easy meat of a limping tusker, first
shooting it dead and then hacking its trunk. Things would have gone
undetected had the nine poachers not been confronted by jawans of
anti-Maoist special force SOG. The body of the mutilated tusker was
found the next day. Just three weeks before the Boudh poaching
incident, the decomposed headless carcass of an adult tusker was found
near Sapua Badajore reservoir in Hindol forest range of Dhenkanal
forest division.

Forest and wildlife department figures show that the annual average
number of elephant deaths in Odisha is rising every decade. While it
was 33 between 1990 and 2000, it is now 70 between 2010 and 2016.
Compared to Karnataka, the other pachyderm stronghold in India, Odisha
is doing badly in terms of death rate. Between 2000 and 2016, Odisha
lost 887 elephants while Karnataka lost 1,143 elephants. Karnataka
with a total population of 6,072 jumbos has a death rate of 19 per
cent while Odisha with 1,954 elephants has a death rate of 45 per

Amid the mayhem, the wildlife department has been spectacularly
clueless, often discovering the carcasses weeks after the death of the
animal. In several cases, the officials have changed the sex of the
deceased elephant to female to escape the opprobrium of the death of a

Wildlife experts say the rising fatality among elephants is putting
the animal population at greater risk due to a paucity of breeding
males. Currently, the number of breeding males in Odisha is around
150. “The low number of large breeding males will lead to inbreeding,
resulting in the birth of unhealthy calves. Many of the males may not
even survive,” says Mohanty. “Each year, on an average, 18 breeding
males are killed and at this rate the large breeding elephants may
come down to less than 50 in the next four years,” he says.

Among all the victims of the human-elephant conflict in Dhenkanal,
63-year-old Sankarshan Jena stands apart. On a wintry December morning
in 2013, the former principal of Hindol College had left his modest
home in Nuapara to go for a morning walk with his wife Veena and
cousin. On their way back, they chanced upon a tusker on the road,
standing 40-50 feet apart. Chased by people, the angry and confused
tusker ran towards Jena and his wife, mauling Veena before escaping.
Though grief-stricken by the loss, Jena is hardly bitter. At public
meetings, he advocates a greater compassion for the beasts because
much of the conflict is a result of the distressing situation the
animals are facing. “By destroying forests, humans have invited this
dangerous conflict. My wife’s death is a personal loss. If the
human-elephant conflict stops, my wounds will heal, but I will
continue to propagate the message of haathi ama saathi (the elephant
is my friend)”.