Simlipal - a heritage in peril



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It was unprecedented by any yardstick. Over a dozen wild elephants were killed in the Simlipal Tiger Reserve (STR); most of the carcasses were burnt while some were buried. Nobody could make out anything! Even after the issue came to light, not a hair wilted in the state's power corridor. There was no stir on the third floor of the State Secretariat where Environment and Forest Minister (EaF)-cum-Chief Minister sits.

It was rather the Union Environment & Forest Ministry, under Jairam Ramesh, which rose to the occasion and immediately constituted a team of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) which rushed to Simlipal for an on-the-spot investigation to establish the cause behind the deaths of the elephants. The team’s main aim was to find out whether it was the job of a gang of local or inter-state poachers alone or the killings were executed with the active connivance of the forest personnel in Simlipal, which otherwise always appear difficult.

As usual a few heads rolled at the subordinate level. Some forest guards and foresters were suspended, while the higher level forest authorities of the STR were left unscathed. Because they are normally couched in the comfort of their offices in Bhubaneswar, so how can they be questioned or held responsible! Moreover, after a series of Naxal attacks within the STR last year, an eerie tranquil ruled over the sanctuary and behind such a guise, the reserve was virtually rendered to a state of anarchy where many things started happening in the name of Naxals - right from the loot of forest produce to killing and poaching of animals. From that time onwards EaF top guys chose to maintain a safe distance from Simlipal.

"Simlipal is no more a sanctuary for wildlife species, rather it has become a veritable ground for poachers and timber mafias," rued Sanjukta Basa, the honorary Wildlife Warden for STR.

Feasting on animal meat is an age-old practice of the local tribes in Simlipal, but they always know the limits of exploitation. However, the free-for-all situation ushered in after the Naxal incidents led to a state which can be best described as calamitous for the species which are still on the run.

"Now, at any point of time one can see two thousand to two thousand five hundred illegal guns in and around Simlipal," said Bhanu Acharya, a wildlife activist in the area. "Almost every day, two to three hundred hunters get into the STR and get away with the booties,” he added.

It should make all of us feel sad that we are living in a society where philosophy of symbiosis is being given a casual burial day in and day out. What happened in the famous Simlipal biosphere reserve in the last two months was indeed shocking in a state where the chief minister himself heads the Environment & Forest Ministry. About a dozen wild elephants were brutally killed within a span of two months but not a hair wilted in the corridors of power. The government here, so far, hasn’t even volunteered to institute a proper inquiry into the gruesome tragedy.

Simlipal Tiger Reserve, which is spread over 2,750 sq kms area and is a place the state used to boast about of having 101 tigers and over 500 wild elephants, is heading towards rapid depletion of the flora and fauna. Amidst conflicting opinions over the census of tigers, it seems STR is poised to be another Sariska in the making, where the tiger population is feared to have fallen to a mere 20. As regards the pachyderms, the last census, held in May this year, as the wildlife department would have us believe, stated that there are about 298 elephants within the STR. The signs of the decline need a serious call.

Whenever there is any news of felling of trees, the chief minister immediately comes out with homilies for massive plantation or afforestation and so on, which normally remain confined to the files of the concerned departments. For instance, in the last five years, in and around the capital city of Bhubaneswar, more than 2,200 big trees have been felled for developmental reasons. Neither the government compensates nor does it matter to the elite populace of the city because they have the respites at command. But a majority face the music. That was about a city where the concern is either fig-leaf or filmy but, when it is about a habitat, rather a heritage like Simlipal, we tend to endure it with mineral patience. Because the species have no speech and their custodians are gifted with an immunity with its roots in Bhubaneswar.

Unwilling to spare with the findings of the visit to Simlipal, Biswajit Mohanty, a member of the NTCA fact finding team that went to Simlipal, could not hold his frustrations. "It is in a state of mess. Many of the field staff posts are lying vacant. Top level officers are usually holed up in Bhubaneswar on the pretext of meetings or they are in the town nearby and that speaks a lot." He added: "Yes, elephants were killed and we will describe that in detail before the MoEF in our report."

What is evident is the fact that simply a team's visit may not be able to delve into the root of the problem and challenge a system which perhaps is hell-bent to hide things under the carpet. We have excellent wildlifers in the state with indisputable record who should be roped in for such probes if the state government is serious about it. Let’s not carry on with the excuses of Maoists. They are no more there. If the EaF Ministry can ensure that the top forest officers stay in the respective fields, this will address many problems automatically. It is a matter of attitude and attitude can really rock.

When a wildlife species is killed no minister comes out with a word of regret. And the forest authorities always seem taking such deaths with insensitive shrugs, as if the death of an animal is a mere word and that with death, they have sanctioned the relief to the dead, which the latter could have never got when alive. It all sounds very morbid and the acts of killing so unmanly. But for how long?

When would this simple realisation dawn upon the people at the top that it is better to inherit a healthy history than creating one that bears the footprints of ruins.