Jumbo deaths: It is time to act

Home to almost 80 per cent elephants in eastern India until not so long ago, Orissa is struggling against being tagged as the most unsafe place for the national heritage animal. The latest blow came on December 30 night, when a herd of five elephants were mowed down by a speeding Coromondel Express near Subalaya in Ganjam district.

Between November 2009 and December 2012, 258 elephants have died in the state, most of them electrocuted either by sagging high-tension lines or deliberately by villagers poisoned or run over by trains. Also, there is always the risk of poachers. Between 2008 and 2011, there were 121 cases of elephant poaching across India, of which Orissa accounted for 57.

Most of the deaths, if not all, could have been prevented. The measures are already in place, making the big difference is their implementation and the need to tweak rules a bit to hold senior officials accountable and not just junior field officials.

The Ganjam deaths, for example, could have been prevented had the Railways cared a little about slowing down the trains for just about 10-15 km stretch. In 2007, the state forest department issued guidelines to the Railways, urging it to tell the drivers to use continuous hooters, powerful double-beam lights and drive trains slow while passing through elephant corridors. This was obviously not done, the Railways says slowing down would upset the train schedules. The result: in the past three years, 41 elephant have died in Orissa due to speeding trains.

Similarly, in the past 12 years, more than 120 elephants were electrocuted by sagging power lines, which is mainly the result of the long distance between poles in the remote areas. The state forest and wildlife department has done precious little to prevent it, apart from urging the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to grant Rs 32 crore from the Compensatory Afforestation and Management and Planning Authority fund. The MoEF says the funds can't be given to private bodies like the four power distribution companies in Orissa which would fix the power lines.

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