India's giant refugees: On the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar, a man-elephant conflict is mounting

I was probably six years old when I experienced my first wild elephants. It was in the Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary. We were on a family picnic at the Deras reservoir there one winter’s day. After parking my father’s old Fiat under the bamboo that lined the edge of the reservoir, we took a walk around its banks looking for wildlife signs. I shall never get over the awe with which I was struck upon seeing the bucket sized tracks in the soft mud, smaller ones accompanying them and a massive depression right next to the water where an elephant had rolled over and wallowed. Piles of dung lay heaped all over. To imagine that there was a herd of wild elephants there at most a day ago — right where I was standing — was to me, at that age, one of my most imprinting life events.

As soon as I was old enough to wander on my own, I began my career as a young naturalist and wildlife conservationist in these forests on the outskirts of my hometown, Bhubaneswar. These were the forests where I saw my first spotted deer in the wild, my first leopard pugmark, my first jungle fowl and where I logged several hundred hours of elephant watching over years. I had arrived too late in the world to experience tigers here — for they had gone locally extinct in the 1960s, as had the sambar, gaur and wild dogs. The leopard pugmark was of one of the last survivors — for the people of encroaching villages within and around the sanctuary had systematically poisoned out the once healthy leopard population in retaliation for livestock depredation and for the black market in wildlife parts. But elephants were always to be found and in large numbers. Or so it seemed.

Photo courtesy: Aditya Panda

Photo courtesy: Aditya Panda

Around 2001, the sanctuary had close to 90 elephants living in its small, under 190 sq km expanse. In conservation circles, we had begun worrying about the excessive density and the fact that Chandaka was getting isolated and disconnected from the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve landscape and the Kapilas forests to which herds would seasonally migrate in search of forage and cover. Highways, power plants, a railway track, quarries and factories began cropping up on these forest passages that once connected Chandaka to larger wildlife landscapes of the state. Further, the sanctuary itself was turning into an increasingly hostile environment as protection and management by the Forest Department became abysmal and livestock grazing, timber theft, poaching and habitat destruction became more rampant than ever. Conflict was beginning to rise suddenly on Bhubaneswar’s outskirts and newspapers were flooded with headlines about crops being destroyed, people getting trampled and elephants getting killed. Between 2004 and 2006, something that had then been unthinkable began to happen. Large herds began abandoning the sanctuary en masse. They were prepared to cross over the four-lane, extremely busy NH-5 just south of Bhubaneswar and head into the unknown forests of southern coastal Odisha that hadn’t recorded wild elephants in living memory. On more than one occasion, they blundered into the brackish waters of the Chilika Lake as the rocky, dry hill forests they had chosen to traverse did not contain sufficient water. Some died of exhaustion, some were electrocuted, almost an entire herd got run over by the speeding Coromandel Express and the remnants survive as refugees — in a constant state of conflict with people — to this day.

I continued seeing a large herd of elephants in the Bharatpur Reserve Forest on the outskirts till about 2010-11. Even these vanished as private institutions, gated colonies and industrial estates began closing in. Today, only a few stragglers remain in all of Chandaka and Bharatpur.

About five years ago, the rich agricultural belt on the Mahanadi’s floodplains around Athgarh began seeing intense human-elephant conflict. The people in this area did have the odd herd and some lone bull elephants passing through occasionally, but they had never encountered resident elephants. They were unprepared and this was unexpected. Out of the blue, a herd of elephants was residing amongst them, taking refuge in small patches of woodland by day and destroying crops after sundown. It was a refugee herd from Chandaka, very likely the old Bharatpur herd. In these five years, they have constantly been making attempts to find suitable habitat — heading towards Kapilas sometimes and back to Chandaka at others, but being forced back by blocked passages and unsustainable habitat into the conflicted landscape of Athgarh where at least food is plentiful in the form of rich crops. They have blundered into the city of Cuttack and multiple times into the Aviation Research Centre air base at Charbatia. I have seen them inside a defunct factory and spent several nights watching the dedicated staff of the Athgarh Forest Division trying — and usually succeeding against impossible odds — in escorting these pachyderms as safely as possible through the human-dominated hell they are so hopelessly stuck in. The elephants — and the forest personnel — are hounded, harassed, abused relentlessly by mobs of people several hundred strong that materialise out of nowhere every time they emerge. This is a classic case with wild animals in human dominated landscapes all over India. As soon as they emerge — be it snake or leopard, bear or tiger — mobs descend upon them to lynch them. Elephants are little too big to lynch, but people compensate by chasing them, throwing projectiles, crackers and in some places hot iron rods and pellets from muzzle-loading shotguns. Usually, the grace and tolerance of India’s largest land mammal — worshipped as Ganesha and supposedly our ‘National Heritage Animal’ — spares the mobs from what could result in prolific loss of human life. But tolerance wanes and human life does get lost.

elephants Aditya Chandra Panda

Photo courtesy: Aditya Panda

District administrations and police departments usually want nothing to do with wildlife and push every ‘wildlife problem’ to the forest department to deal with. But the forest department is one of very limited resources and powers. It is not empowered for crowd control, for instance, which is of primary importance in any human-wildlife conflict situation.

Recently, my friend and conservation colleague, Cara Tejpal, from the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and filmmakers Karan Tejpal, Isshaan Ghosh and Tiya Tejpal arrived in Orissa to visit the Mahanadi-Athgarh landscape. As we drove around some of the destroyed wilder parts of the Khuntuni range late one afternoon, we came across ‘our’ herd helplessly surrounded by over 300 people. The tragedy of their being was captured on camera and has now gone viral over the internet as the #GiantRefugees campaign. Adults and children from all over the world, celebrities and the public have been writing to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to act upon this tragedy.

There can be no immediate solutions to this. But a start must be made — and it is high time. For one, a task force needs to be in place immediately looking into corrective measures in the protection and management of Chandaka which has been failed by the State Forest Department through unpardonable neglect. There is a need to review policy decisions pertaining to development of infrastructure in the areas adjoining the sanctuary and connecting it to the larger Mahanadi Elephant Reserve/Satkosia Tiger Reserve and Kapilas Wildlife Sanctuary landscapes. On a more immediate basis, to control the daily harassment of the elephants and to prevent danger to wildlife and human life, the state government must issue standard operating procedures that mandate that any potential human-wildlife conflict situation should require the involvement of the concerned district administration and police department for crowd control while the forest departments do their job. Imposition of Section 144 of the IPC appears as one of the only ways to control mobs from building up and human and wildlife lives being put at risk in such situations. This had been advised by former Member Secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, Dr Rajesh Gopal on a more national context but the idea didn’t find enthusiastic takers then and nor does it today.

Reviving Chandaka, restoring its contiguity to the larger tiger and elephant landscape of Satkosia-Mahanadi-Kapilas is a very achievable conservation goal — provided the political and bureaucratic will exists.

The story of Chandaka and its refugee elephants should not be viewed as a local issue. It is not. It is a microcosm of the state of wildlife and wildlife habitats across India. The sooner we act, in policy, principle and on ground, the greater the chances that India’s life support systems — her forests, mountains, soil, rivers, oceans, wetlands and deserts — can sustain the burden of our 1.3 billion, ceaselessly growing mass for a little bit longer.

Find out how you can support Sanctuary Asia's Giant Refugees campaign here. Also watch this short video on 'Athgarh's giant refugees':

Updated Date: Mar 05, 2017 09:29 AM

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