India’s elephants are squeezed of living space, stressed by development, and are growing increasingly violent. So are its people.
Well what could better describe the behavior of the herds of elephants that have somehow become accustomed of feasting out the crops of villages, stomping their gardens and damaging their houses! For years people in forest regions of Orissa have existed peacefully with the elephants but things are changing slowly. As the habitats of the pachyderms get devoured by human population on the name of development, the elephants are gradually transgressing into the human dwellings.
The ongoing Rengali Left Bank Canal Irrigation project on the Brahmani river of Orissa is a pointer to the fact. The irrigation project might be aimed towards agricultural prosperity of the state,but for the dwellers of 360 odd villagers in Dhenkanal and to the numerous animals who live in the forests nearby, it’s a battle of survival! The final stages of work on the canal have exposed the villagers to a bitter man-elephant conflict. Figures at hand are but an adjunct to the fact. Of the 65 human deaths in Orissa from elephant accidents in the last six-seven years ,30-35 cases have been reported from Dhenkanal only.
The Rengali left bank project has destroyed the traditional habitat of elephants passing through the reserve forests of Dhenkanal, Kapilash and Anantpur, in Dhenkanal forest division. Villagers complain that they had lived peacefully with the animals for ever and the animals never attacked their villages, filed or trampled through their courtyards. However this has all become a regular feature now with the corridor that provided a safe exit for the elephants to migrate, being destroyed. Elephants are migratory animals and require tremendous space. The development of the irrigation project has robbed them of this free space. Traditional paths are now totally cut off due to steep-walled canals on either side of the Brahmani River, creating insurmountable obstacles for elephant migration.
Experts point out that Kapilash was the terminal point of habitat for the entire elephant population stretching from Dhenkanal, Keonjhar, West and East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand up to the Dalma forests, covering a distance of 430 km. The rich and diverse forests of Dhenkanal offered an ideal transit path for passing elephants, providing them an abundance of food, shelter and water. However, lack of continuity and fragmentation of their habitat by the canal and its distributaries has put the elephant population under severe stress, experts say.
With the elephants transgressing regularly into human dwellings in search of food and damaging the crops, the villagers have slowly stopped cultivation altogether and many have become migrant laborers. The government is slowly getting up to the problem and has taken active steps for reducing the growing conflict , apart from announcing a compensation of Rs 2 Lakhs for the family of anyone who has been killed by the elephant. The government of Orissa has drawn up a Rs 64 crore multi-pronged strategy to check the growing conflict. An important measure is restoring corridors and fragmented elephant habitats. The forest department has engaged experts to study the land use plan in 14 corridors across the state, and local villagers are being trained and engaged as trackers in elephant squads. Solar-powered fences around cultivated fields are being tested in certain villages.
How far the forest department succeeds in bringing relief to the troubled villagers remains to be seen. But local non-profit organization like the Wildlife Society of Orissa, has begun spreading awareness amongst the villagers. Let’s hope all these efforts bear fruits soon and we successfully eliminate the stress that we are putting ourselves and the animals in.