The sad truth about Odisha’s dwindling wildlife populations

Nation Odisha

Cuttack: Odisha, considered as one of the best wildlife spots in the country, is no longer a safe home. Wildlife populations especially elephants, pangolins and turtles suffers high mortality rates. While most species are dying because of forest encroachment, tigers are severely affected due to escalation in poaching.

For Odisha’s fast dwindling wildlife, life continues to be stressful, fraught with risks, a daily struggle for food in a fast depleting habitat as the Government ‘celebrates’ Wildlife Week  in October every year, said Wildlife Society of Orissa secretary Biswajit Mohanty in a press release said.

Elephants – worst sufferers

Mohanty said in the last nine-and-half-a-years, as many as 727 elephants have died, of which 257 elephants (more than 35%,) have died due to unnatural causes – 113 to electrocution, 77 to poaching, 26 to poisoning, 26 to Train Kills, five to Road Kills and 10 after falling into manmade structures like Open wells and Irrigation projects.

He said that the reasons for death could not be ascertained in 147 cases as carcasses are found in decomposed state and some just skeletal remains.

Last year, 2018-19, saw the highest elephant mortality till date – 91 of them, of which 36 were due to unnatural causes and in 27 cases the reason could not be known. The year also saw the highest number of electrocutions till date – 24 of them of which 12 were by sagging power lines and 12 by hooking of live wire for poaching, he said.

The electrocution of seven elephants near Kamalanga, Dhenkanal on October 27, 2018 is recorded as one of the biggest ever tragedy in the annals of India’s wildlife history. The recent months saw seven casualties due to train hits, four of which were in one incident near Teldihi in Jharsuguda on April 16, 2018. The period also witnessed the highest number of human kills by elephants – 92 humans as the human elephant conflict worsened.

During 2019-20, with six months still to go, Odisha has already lost 33 elephants and human kills by elephants is at an alarming 59, heading once again to an all time high mortality for both elephants and humans. The road kill of three elephants on the National Highway at Balijodi, Keonjhar on August 22, 2019 is among the worst recorded elephant deaths on Indian roads, he said.

The Government has done woefully little or nothing to prevent unnatural deaths of elephants, rued Mohanty.

Big Cats vanish

While Tiger population has gone up in most Indian States, in Odisha it has come down or remained static. In 2004, the State had claimed the presence of 192 tigers which came down to 28 in 2014. Even after spending crores of rupees on tiger conservation during the last four years, the numbers continued to stagnant at 28 in 2018 census Similipal, which houses most of the Tigers, witnesses rampant poaching of herbivores, the Tiger’s food due to utter failure of the Similipal authorities to control poaching.

Satkosia witnessed an ill advised venture into Tiger tourism in June,2018 which went horribly wrong within two months as one of the two Tiger’s relocated from Madhya Pradesh was poached and the other had to be caught and brought back into an enclosure after she attacked humans. Ironically, the government opted for the Rs 26 crore relocation project but five years ago had preferred to keep a straying Sakosia Male Tiger at Nandan Kanan Zoo in 2013 instead of releasing him to bolster the Tiger population there.

The Sunabeda sanctuary which had got an in principle approval about a decade ago  from MoEF to turn it into a Tiger Reserve has not been notified yet by the Odisha government despite constant reminders from the NTCA.

Leopards are being regularly poached for their skins and body parts. This is evident from the fact that 11 leopard skins have been seized in Odisha in the last one and a half years and as many as 26 men have been arrested, most of them in operations carried out by the Crime Branch of Police. The biggest seizure happened In Kuchinda, Sambalpur on 15th March,2019 when 4 leopard skins were seized by the Crime Branch of Police and seven poachers/traders were arrested. The Forest Department was clueless about 7 of the 11 skins seized and has failed to identify the source of skins and where they were poached.

Turtles in trouble

While the Olive Ridley turtles, Odisha’s sports mascot continue to be massacred in thousands off the Odisha coast by illegal trawlers, the Rushikulya river mouth nesting site did not witness mass nesting this year and yet again the Ridleys avoided the Devi river mouth nesting site. The Fresh Water turtles of Odisha are having a bad time too, being poached in large numbers for smuggling to other states and abroad. In 8 recorded seizures in the last one and a half years, mostly by Railway authorities and the Police, nearly 2,900 fresh water turtles were seized. One of the biggest fresh water turtle seizures in India happened on May 25, 2018 when the Bengal police seized a Truck at Dhulagarh toll plaza when the Truck from Odisha, which had come from Bhubaneswar, was transporting 2,500 turtles to North 24 Paraganas.

Pangolins on the Brink

Pangolin, the most trafficked wild animal in the world, was rampantly poached in the last 15 months.  This is evident from the several seizures of Pangolin Scales and Live Pangolins. On June 18, 2018 when Shamsuddin Khan was caught with 5 Kgs of Pangolin scales near Daspalla, Nayagarh, it was not known to the forest department that he was one of the most wanted wildlife smuggler in the State until the Crime Branch of Police took over the case. His arrest led to five more arrests, including two from the North East and exposed a network that covered several states in India on to South East Asia.  The high demand for live pangolins was evident in last one year when eight live Pangolins were seized and reports of several more that got smuggled out have come to light.

Odisha’s breeding grounds of rare Horse Shoe Crabs on the sea shores witness mass deaths each year during their breeding season due to lack of protection to these grounds. The Sloth bears of Odisha are under constant threat from humans as attacks by Bears have gone up due to competition for the same food source. Snakes are being illegally rescued and displayed in the absence of licensed snake rescuers. Thousands of Parakeet chicks are smuggled out of the state to meet the pet trade demand outside the state.

Though the Forest Department has introduced a Toll Free number at the Chief Wildlife Warden’s office for receiving information about wildlife poaching and smuggling, the Wildlife Crime Cell is inactive and ineffective as it does not have expertise and the required intelligence network to carry out seizures and arrests. Poachers and Traders are easily getting bail and most of them are set free as the department does not have dedicated legal experts to ensure proper charge sheet and conviction.

The credibility of the Odisha State Board for Wildlife, whose chairman is the Chief Minister himself, has a questionable existence since the last two decades. The Board hardly meets and whenever it does, it is to clear development projects in eco sensitive zones.

Barring the wildlife week celebrations each year when the government pat themselves on their back, the Chief Minister and Minister for Forest & Environment never come to the forefront to review wildlife management.  While wildlife rich states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand etc are implementing viable wildlife management plans, the Odisha Government is lagging way behind. A consultant was paid more than Rs 3 crores but the wildlife management plan is yet to be delivered even after four years, Mohanty said.

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