Odisha: 57 people died in encounters with elephants in last 3 months

Hindustan Times | Debabrata Mohanty | July 02, 2023

Odisha has seen 50% jump in human casualties in April-June this year from the corresponding period in 2022, when 38 people were killed

Bhubaneswar: Odisha has seen a 50% increase jump in human casualties in encounters with wild elephants in the first three months of 2023-24, with 57 deaths compared to 38 deaths in the same period last year.

This year’s April, May and June, when human-elephant encounters are typically at their peak with the pachyderms raiding mango, bael and jackfruit orchards, have been the most lethal in past 10 years. The quarter also saw a 26% rise in the number of human-elephant encounters, which resulted in more injuries than ever before.

Asian elephants are attracted to food crops because they are more palatable, more nutritious and have lower secondary defences than wild plants, wildlife expert Biswajit Mohanty said. Crop damage by elephants is the root cause of human-elephant conflicts across states, he added.

“An elephant eats around 200 kg of food per day and a single elephant can destroy a hectare of crops in a very short time and a small herd can decimate a farmer’s livelihood overnight. Often, the people who suffer these attacks are already economically and nutritionally vulnerable, and the loss of crops and livestock can have grave impacts on their income and food consumption,” Mohanty said.

“The sharp rise in human deaths suggests that elephants are straying out of their habitats more often due to lack of adequate forest fodder and a marked shift towards consumption of farms crops and foodgrain stored inside villages,” he said. “Another crucial factor is the huge level of disturbance caused by quarries and crushers and night movement of trucks and tractors.”

Of the 57 human deaths in the three months, 14 took place in mango orchards, three in cashew plantations, seven when people went out to relieve themselves, seven during village raids, three during crop raids and eight when people ventured into forests to collect firewood, tendu and sal leaves, mahua fruits and mushrooms, official data show.

Dhenkanal district bore the brunt of elephant depredations, where 14 persons were killed, followed by 13 in Angul, eight in Keonjhar, five in Mayurbhanj and Sambalpur districts each. Of the 13 deaths in Angul district, villagers in Bantala Forest range faced the wrath of elephants the most in the three months, recording 12 encounters in which nine were killed and five injured.

“Palm fruits, which are a prime source of food of elephants during June and July, have become scarce due to massive felling of palm trees for interstate trade to Tamil Nadu. Dhenkanal, Angul and Deogarh districts have lost thousands of palm trees since the last three years as organized timber traders camp there and decimate the trees,” Mohanty said. “The sharp rise suggests that this year the number of human deaths could end up significantly more than 146 human deaths of last year.”

Odisha holds the dubious record of the maximum number of human deaths among all states despite being home to lower number of elephants compared to Karnataka, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as per the last elephant census carried out in August 2017. Odisha has 1,976 elephants, compared to Karnataka’s 6,049, Assam’s 5,719, Kerala’s 3,054 and Tamil Nadu’s 2,761.

Between 2019-20 and 2021-22, 1,579 people were killed in the country by elephants, the environment ministry said in the Lok Sabha last year in response to a question. Odisha topped the list with 322 deaths, followed by Jharkhand (291), West Bengal (240), Assam (229), Chhattisgarh (183) and Tamil Nadu (152).

The rise in human deaths due to human-elephant conflict is possibly due to presence of a few elephants in a herd, according to Belinda Wright of Wildlife Protection Society of India. “A large percentage of human-elephant conflict involves tuskers. It is possible to prevent these confrontations if tuskers are identified and continuously tracked by expert trackers,” she said. “The forest department should not sit back and allow people to get killed like this.”

The state forest department has taken up several measures, including the introduction of a scheme called “Gaja Sathis” (elephant friends) in which volunteers trained by forest officials are helping mitigate human-elephant conflict, said SK Popli, chief wildlife warden of Odisha.

“More than 5,400 volunteers have been engaged in 1,177 villages. We have also rolled out the “Jana Surakhya Gaja Rakshya” (Human safety, elephant protection) scheme, under which solar fencing would be done around villages with 90% cost borne by the state,” Popli said. “We have also increased the ex-gratia amount to ₹6 lakh from ₹4 lakh in case of human deaths due to elephant attack.”