With 90 electrocution deaths since 2010, including 7 in one incident last month, Odisha has earned itself the tag of “elephant graveyard”. As the state rounds up low-level power and forest officials, The Indian Express on what is forcing the pachyderms out of the jungle and into harm’s way.
For a week now, farmers in Kamalanga village of Odisha’s Dhenkanal district have been visiting a fallow patch of land to offer prayers to ensure that they are kept “safe from misfortune”.The patch, recently dug and refilled, makes for a strange prayer spot. Over the loose soil, fetid odours hang, mixing with the smell of foul water seeping up and drawing frenzied flies. Fifty-year-old Bhima Bhoi tiptoes to the edge of the spot, his head bowed in prayer. He ignores the acres of green surrounding the place, where the grass smells sweet and wildflowers wave in the breeze. He hisses angrily at a curious boy, who saunters over.
Prayer over, he mumbles an ominous prediction. “When gajaraj (elephant) dies during the Gajalakshmi Puja, end is near.”
It was here, on this patch of land, that seven elephants died due to electrocution on October 26, after coming in contact with a low-hanging 11 KV power line. The seven deaths in one incident was Odisha’s worst pachyderm tragedy through electrocution. In April, four elephants were killed by a train in Jharsuguda district. The residents of Kamalanga say it was a terrible omen that the animal associated with the Goddess Lakshmi died during her own puja, Dhenkanal’s most important annual festival. Conservationists say that with Odisha accounting for 90 out of nearly 460 electrocution deaths across the country since 2010, the state merits the status of India’s “elephant graveyard”. At 106, Karnataka recorded more deaths, but Karnataka’s jumbo population (6,049) is over thrice that of Odisha (1,976), as per the Centre’s 2017 census.
Bhima recalls elephants visiting Kamalanga, which is located near Dhenkanal’s borders with Angul district in central Odisha, only in the last four years. “On October 26, at 6:30 am, we all saw a majestic herd of 13 passing through the fields to reach the Brahmani river on the other side of our fields. As the elephants faded into the distance, there was a sound like dehare sahey chchatta bajila pari sabda (a whiplash meeting flesh), only hundred times louder. The power went out.”
His neighbour, Tuna Mohapatra, 45, takes over the narration. “We saw some elephants trumpeting loudly and running in all directions. We knew something bad had happened, but fear of the wild herd made us stay in our homes… Three hours later, some of us dared venture to the spot and saw a carnage we cannot forget. Seven dead (elephants), some carrying burn marks, were piled on each other.”
Sobs Bhima, “One of the female elephants had a baby inside her. I vomited when they cut it open during the post-mortem. Not seven, but actually eight died that day.”
The Wildlife Society of Odisha (WSO) puts the number of elephant deaths due to electrocution in the state since 2010 at 102, more than the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)’s figure of 90. The numbers place Odisha among the top two states reporting elephant deaths by electrocution. An exposed power line sags at the spot in Dhenkanal where the elephants died. One electric pole is bent and the line has burnt a portion of a small palm tree. For man or animal passing that way, death seems inevitable. “We had complained about the wire to the Electricity Department,” says Tuna.
Within a day of the seven elephants dying, Odisha’s Forest Department had put out a statement blaming the state’s Energy Department. “Contact with live wires killed the elephants,” says Dhenkanal District Forest Officer (DFO) Sudarshan Patra.
The office of the state’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests released a statement saying the elephants were killed “due to non-rectification of sagging lines and non-cabling of transmission lines”. In cabling, high-power overhead lines are enclosed in a sheath for insulation.
The PCCF’s statement also clarified that last year the Dhenkanal DFO had asked the Executive Engineer of the area’s power distribution company, Central Electricity Supply Utility (CESU), “to rectify the sagging transmission line from Kamalanga to Kaliataila of Dhenkanal Range”.
As per Rule 58 of the Central Electricity Authority’s Regulations 2010, no overhead line, should be at a height less than 4.6 metres for lines up to 11,000 volts. The height of an Indian elephant is 2.40-2.75 metres (at the shoulder) and adherence to the regulation could have prevented the death of seven elephants.
On October 30, a bench headed by National Green Tribunal (NGT) Chairperson Justice Adarsh Goel asked the CESU to deposit Rs 1 crore with the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state. The NGT also constituted a team, comprising representatives from the MoEF, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Dehradun, Director of Project Elephant and Odisha’s Chief Wildlife Warden, to visit Dhenkanal and suggest measures to prevent recurrence of such incidents.
On November 3, the Odisha Crime Branch arrested a junior engineer of the CESU’s local division, a forester and a forest guard. The accused were arrested under Section 146 of the Electricity Act, 2003 (punishment for non-compliance of any order in the act), and Section 51 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (dealing with killing of protected animals).
Crime Branch SP Sandeep Madkar told The Sunday Express the list of people arrested “may go up”.
Engineers of the CESU — an Odisha-based electricity supplier, providing power in eight districts — are seething over what they call “entrapment of junior officers”. General Secretary of Odisha State Electrical Corporation Engineers Association Akhyay Padhy told The Sunday Express that the low-hanging wire could have been easily detected had the CESU’s Chief Safety Officer ordered regular inspection. Chief Security Officer Nilambar Jena was not available for comment.
The CESU’s disgruntled junior-level engineers flag an additional reason for sagging wires. “When the distance between two (electric) poles exceeds the specified measurement of 60 metres, the weight of the 11 KV power line causes it to sag towards the middle. In rural areas, poles are placed at a distance of 90-100 metres,” says one engineer.
This is usually done as a favour to the contractor in exchange for bribes,” the engineer adds. “Suppose 30 poles have been sanctioned for a stretch, work is ‘managed’ with 22 poles. The rest of the money is taken by the contractor and the profit split with the supply engineer. Sacking a Junior Engineer or suspending a lineman solves nothing. They have no power, but are held responsible.”
While the CESU’s top officers did not respond to requests for comments, Odisha’s Forest Minister Bijayshree Routray says, “it is totally the responsibility of the CESU”.
Conservationists point to another dimension of the problem. On the route to Kamalanga from Dhenkanal town, major road-widening activity is underway, crisscrossing many elephant spots marked by signboards. The elephants that come down from wooded areas to the Brahmani river now have to cross roads littered with construction trucks, earth movers, dust, noise and hundreds of workers.
“To me, the larger question is why the elephants were there in the first place,” says Ajaya Desai, who has researched elephants in India for decades. “This does not appear to be elephant area. Are elephants dispersing out of some area where we have created a problem for them? If so, the real danger is not electrocution, but the destruction of their habitat.”
Wildlife Protection Society of India member Belinda Wright says that elephants, who are giant herbivores, cover a home range of 250-1,000 km for food, and use “memory” and “logic” to move through safe spaces. “However, given the huge disturbance of their habitats — including expansion of highways — these usually gentle creatures are forced to move out of their forest. Wild elephants by instinct will prefer habitats that hold sources of water and plenty of food sources, with minimum disturbances.”
Kamalanga’s accident site is not close to any densely forested area, while the nearest marked elephant “crossing” is around 15 km away. Kamalanga is also fast being taken over by a township created by GMR Kamalanga Energy Limited, a 1050 MW coal-based power plant. The accident site is less than a kilometre from the plant, and is part of agricultural land.
Biswajit Mohanty, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, lists additional local factors for elephants moving in a place as urbanised as Kamalanga. “Quarrying and stone crushers in elephant habitats are cutting off movement to Dhenkanal’s Hindol forests. It forces them to cross the National Highway, railway line and Rengali Canal to reach the Brahmani river, which they didn’t prior to 2013. This is a new pattern.”
Mohanty says that this problem has been brought to the attention of the Forest and Revenue Departments and orders were issued to the District Collector to check this one year ago. “But nothing has happened as minor mineral mafia is the biggest political funding agency for the ruling party in Odisha,” he alleges.
Adds Ajaya Desai, “Studies have shown that roads can impact elephants 1-3 km away.”
While Dhenkanal District Collector Nikhil Pavan Kalyan says his district does not have any illegal quarries, stone crushers or mineral mafia, BJD MP from Dhenkanal Tathagata Satpathy calls the theory “far-fetched”. “No one from our party collects funds from them,” he stresses.
Honorary State Welfare Officer with the Animal Welfare Board of India Anil Dhir highlights the scarcity of food for wild elephants, another reason driving them out of the jungles. “Siali leaves are the staple diet of elephants, but the Forest Department is not replanting the vines in required numbers,” he says.
In Odisha, siali (Bauhinia vahlii) leaves are collected and sold by poor people to make biodegradable plates. While the leaves are inexpensive, they are still being collected on a scale that makes them scarce for elephants.
On Sunday, residents near Rasgobindpur Forest Range in Mayurbhanj district, 380 km away, had their crops crushed by a herd of 60 hungry elephants. Conveying his dismay, Surendra Sahu, a local farmer, said, “The elephants came just as the grain ripened.”
Biswajit Mohanty also points to the current pattern of agriculture in Odisha, especially Dhenkanal, which incentivises elephants to venture into populated areas. He says that cultivation of cereals and oilseeds in the drier areas, 10-15 years ago, has now given way to large-scale paddy farming because of huge input subsidies by the state government. Also, jackfruit and mangoes, loved by elephants, are now being grown in large quantities for distant markets.
The Wildlife Trust of India’s research on shrinkage of habitats for Odisha’s elephants also states that irrigation canals “have facilitated cultivation in areas not earlier conducive to agriculture, created physical barriers to animal movement… leading to increased conflict particularly in the Dhenkanal and Angul districts”.
District Collector Kalyan and Tathagata Satpathy both agree. “The bumper paddy output (in Dhenkanal) over the last few years has drawn elephants,” Kalyan says.
Suggesting systemic changes in current cultivation patterns and cycles, Mohanty says, “We can consider farming elephant raid-proof crops like millets and oilseeds, which were previously grown in these villages.”
Elephant ecologist with Wildlife Trust of India Dr K Ramkumar forecasts a bleak future. “Though many mitigating measures are being used in India (to prevent elephant entry into human habitat), none has given fruitful results in the long term,” he says. “Habitat degradation has turned elephants into obligatory crop raiders.”
Ramkumar also wonders if anything can be done to keep elephants away from dangerous infrastructure, like power lines. “Elephants can get an electric shock from high-voltage power lines even without touching them (if they come within 3 feet of a high voltage electric line).”
Desai discusses the inadequacy of government response, particularly Project Elephant, a Central scheme launched in 1992 to protect elephants. “We only talk from one crisis to the next, it is time we stopped such knee jerk reactions. There is no statutory body for elephants like the National Tiger Conservation Authority. We have Project Elephant, which is poorly funded and has minimal staff.”
In the absence of government help, farmers take own measures, and many of the elephant deaths by electrocution are due to this. In wire traps set up by them, long wires are laid over 1-2 km on the edge of a forest valley opening out to paddy fields. The traps are meant for wild boar that usually raid ripened paddy between October and November. These lines are laid at a height of two feet. Power is hooked from a transformer terminal or an overhead naked line. Even 11 KV power lines are tapped in this manner. On November 2, an elephant in Odisha’s Sundergarh district was reportedly killed in a suspected case of wire trapping. On November 9, another jumbo in Angul district was discovered dead with tusks missing. The WSO claims these traps have claimed 42 jumbos over the last nine years.
Elephants have also been known to die after coming in touch with solar-powered fences, set up by the Forest Department to keep elephants away from villages or fields in areas they frequent. While these fences usually go defunct within one-two months, when the charger is shorted or the rechargeable battery is not maintained, these are not taken down. Farmers then charge the strands of wires on the fence by hooking to a regular electric power source, to poach herbivores like deer, barking deer, elephants and wild boar.
Farmers in Angul, Dhenkanal and Cuttack district also erect wire fences to keep away elephants from banana and mango plantations. In the night, they charge these fences with electric wire from a mainline supply. The WSO attributes 13 elephant deaths to these fences alone since 2010.
However, solutions can be had. Since 2010, Southco Utility, southern Odisha’s electricity supplier, has taken a number of steps to protect elephants. The company raised the height of its electricity poles. It also attached metal spikes on them as the animals are fond of rubbing themselves against poles. Southco reportedly spent nearly Rs 25 crore to secure over 500 elephant spots in six of southern Odisha’s districts in this manner.
Back in Kamalanga, both Bhima and Tuna say that the remaining members of the elephant herd revisited the spot two days after the accident. “They stood silently a few metres away from the graves. We came out on our rooftops and verandahs to mourn with them,” says 10-year-old Rakesh Behera.
His grandmother, washing vessels outside the house, says, “I have always been scared of elephants because they can kill us. But that episode (electrocution) just broke my heart.”
Belinda Wright wonders what is happening away from public sight. “The elephants that survived in the herd must be immensely stressed. Although it is not confirmed, the herd may continue to stick together, with an experienced female taking the place of the matriarch. We surmise that it was the matriarch of the herd that died first.”