Bhubaneswar: It seems the Odisha Government has adopted a “Full Tolerance” policy on elephant killings unlike its “Zero Tolerance” towards corruption! The elephants, part of Odisha’s fabled history, are in danger and they have fallen easy prey to the poachers and international ivory smugglers. There seems to be no restrictions for anyone to enter the forests and return with jumbo parts, if the rate of conviction and the number of elephant casualties are any indicator.
Odisha, once known for its rich elephant resources for which the kings in the state assumed the Gajapati title, is now open for killings which is evident from the official records. While Puri’s titular king still goes by the Gajapati identity, the king of Parlakhemundi, too uses the title. Even a district in Odisha, is named as Gajapati. All these clearly indicate that ancient and present day Odisha has strong connections with elephants. These animals were used in different festivals like Ratha Jatra and the Konark temple walls are replete with elephants of stone. However, this cultural significance of the elephants in Odia life appears to be lost on the State Wildlife Administration.
In a recent statement in the Odisha Legislative Assembly, Forest, Environment and Climate Change Minister Pradip Kumar Amat admitted that at least 245 elephants were killed in a span of three years from 2019 to 2021. If one looks back, as many as 954 jumbos were killed in a span of 12 years and three months. Of the 954 jumbo casualties, the State Government claimed that 429 met with natural deaths while 135 died due to poaching, 144 in electrocution, 36 in train accidents and 6 in road accidents. Interestingly, the Government could not ascertain the cause of elephant deaths in 204 cases. So, it may be assumed that 339 (204+135) elephants were killed by poachers during the 12 years and three months before July, 2022. It can also be said that 525 jumbos died due to human errors taking poaching, unknown deaths, electrocution, train and road accidents together.
Just two days ago, one tusker fell to bullets in Narasinghpur Forest Range of Athagarh Forest Division. The elephant killings continue unabated across the state. The highest, 35 elephants, have died in Dhenkanal Forest Division followed by 21 in Keonjhar, 12 in Angul and Satkosia division, 11 in Athagarh, Deogarh and South Similipal divisions. 10 elephants have also died in Balasore, Kalahandi (South) and Khurda Forest Divisions.
Interestingly, the State Government did not take any action against the officials responsible for the safety of the animals. Who is, in fact, responsible for the death of elephants? Is it poachers or the Minister or the DFOs? The State Wildlife Administration has no answer and elephant killings are just accepted as a normal development even as the old proverb in Odia says: “Hatimale lakshe, jeele lakshe”, meaning an elephant, whether alive or dead, yields great income.
There seems to be no such accountability on anyone in the system. The officials admit elephant deaths as it is simply impossible to hide a dead elephant. The poachers abandon the body after killing the animal and sawing away the tusks.
The Minister in Assembly also read out several steps being taken for the protection of elephants in Odisha jungles beginning from creating elephant corridors to several other schemes and crores of rupees are also allocated for the purpose. But, the fact remains that there is no remission in the jumbo killing, as if the policy of “Full Tolerance” to elephant killings is on.
One should not be surprised if Odisha turns into a zero-jumbo state in the next 20 years. “While there were 1827 elephants in 1999, the number has increased to 1976 in 2017,” Minister Forest, Environment and Climate Change recently informed the Assembly while rejecting Opposition Congress’ speculation that elephants will vanish from Odisha.
This is not all, the State Government also claimed that lakhs of rupees are spent on installation of solar lights, Gaja Sathi, Gaja Bandhu, engagement of elephant squad and engagement of elephant trackers. The highest amount of Rs 3232.77 lakh has been sent from the State Exchequer towards engagement of elephant squads.
Why does the State Government fail to check elephant killings despite having all the power and logistics? The question has a clear reply which the Forest and Wild Life Administrators are also aware of. But, the fact remains that there is no proper follow up to the seizure of ivory or criminals linked in the jumbo killings. When a small-time or local person is held on charge of killing the elephant, the investigation completes its job by producing them in courts. The investigation never goes deep into the matter and also does not attempt to reach the kingpin who engages the poor local people in poaching.
The local person arrested in the incident gets bail and again returns to work for the kingpins who are sitting in some other cities or countries. The DFOs who are directly responsible for the safety of the animals under their jurisdiction do not face either administrative inquiry or accountability of any kind. WildLife experts allege that the DFOs in Odisha have almost turned to be IT professionals who prefer to work in air-conditioned chambers and never go inside the forests. Many of the DFOs have become blasé about activating the forest rangers and guards.
The low-ranking forest field officials are mostly engaged in office or at the residence of their seniors leaving open the forests at the mercy of the poachers or the wildlife body part smugglers. Even there are instances where the forest guards engage local youths in protecting the forest for a petty amount while they prefer to relax in urban pockets. This is high time the State Government refused to tolerate elephant killings and senior officers were made accountable for every death of jumbo instead of punishing the low-ranking officials. The senior officials’ promotions and career-growth should also be linked to their performances in the fields and not in the seminars and conferences. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who is also considered as an avid wildlife lover is needed to take up the cause of hapless pachyderms and stop the merciless killing of “Odisha’s Pride”.