A heritage at crossroads

As in many other states, in Orissa too the poor animals are on the edge.

DN Singh

Wild elephants are on the run everywhere. As in many other states of the country, in Orissa too the poor animals are on the edge, falling prey to the most obnoxious designs of the man. In short, over the years, it has become a murky drama of national disrepute where animals are fighting a battle for survival and on the other, the systems which rule suffer from a blocked mindset that is perilously close to callousness.

In this frenzied tussle between the man and the animal a great heritage seems drifting away rapidly from human control. Let’s take the example of one of India’s most prestigious elephant reserves, Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district. For centuries this habitat, which nestles on the awesome Maghashan Hills range, had been a safe home for over 500 elephants.

Now the elephant reserve - that constitutes a part of this National Park-cum-Biosphere Reserve - is now in a state of comma. Elephants have started dying with unfailing regularity. The most shocking trail of death came to light in 2010 when within a span of a week, 18 elephants were reported dead inside Simlipal. The tragic incident would have died the way the elephants did but for the local activists the matter caught national headlines.

Worse part of the story was that the forest department had allegedly played a role that was more dirtier than the deeds of the ones who had killed the poor animals. It was more or less established by a central team that the forest personnel had tried to destroy the evidences of about eight elephant carcasses. It has become a common refrain with the wildlife department to bury the truth when it is about any unnatural death of animals.

Eight wild elephants falling prey to human greed within one week, in November this year, speaks volumes about the sordid realities which, perhaps, create the inherent fabric of official protectors.

Periodic census conducted for a count of elephant population might vary in number but, the deaths often go uncounted and the question still remains uppermost in the minds of close followers of wildlife that, whether the official bluffs will ever bring the reality to light. But the rapid depletion of the elephant habitats has exposed the dark underbelly, and the huge number of elephants from various habitats in Orissa exposed to the poachers’ greed and other human neglects need no further proof.

What seems quite apparent that either it is the changing mindset which erodes the attitude of the forest & wildlife department, or its credibility is now a history only. Standing on a reverse-pyramid structure the department is weighed down by the large number of top brass, mostly cocooned to the state capital or other cities.

The person heading the Simlipal Tiger Project, of which the elephant reserve is a part only, has his office at Baripada. Which means to reach the core area of the park he has to travel a good, arduous track of 150 kilometres to take stock of the day to day affairs. The cases of Chilika wildlife wing, Barbara forest under the Khurda Forest division and few other important divisions are based at Bhubaneswar, the capital city. Over 16 chief conservators and 30 conservators remained holed up in cities or towns.

After the 2010 carnage in Simlipal, the state belatedly stirred from its state of stupor and hurriedly formed a monitoring committee the same year and tried to bring back Simlipal to normalcy. Nothing happened and in 2011 yet again, a committee was formed to augment the situation there which had worsened from 2009 after the so-called Naxal attacks. Interestingly, all these committees were manned by the same senior forest and wildlife officials who are part of this beleaguered system.

“The present state of Simlipal is on the crossroads and, in fact, is in the state of coma that needs intensive care. Look, everything there has fallen apart; hardly the officials go for vigil there. Thus, the area remains exposed to exploiters from the state and outside,” rued Biswajit Mohanty, environmental activist and member of the National Board for Wildlife. “Even the National Tiger Reserve Committee under which the elephant reserve comes, has hardly initiated any counter policy for Simlipal,” Mohanty added.

“We have forest ministers who never visit such troubled spots and the concerned secretaries never, officially, visit the areas except for picnics. Even Naveen Patnaik as the then forest minister had done nothing except holding meetings at Bhubaneswar. Tell me how many probes have brought results and how many have been convicted for acts either for killing an elephant or electrocuting,” he said further.

Simlipal is a vast area, spreading over 2,000 sq kms, and it can never be protected without a special task force besides the wildlife staff. Bosses in Bhubaneswar, who pose to be the unchallenged kings of sanctimoniousness and have a strong penchant for outsourcing such delicate issues, just keep mulling for either a unified command, an interdepartmental watchdog body or deploying a taskforce in Simlipal and nothing beyond that. Still the unified command is in a nebulous state and task force appears like chasing a chimera.

The critique of the environmental activists on the lop-sided way of functioning of the forest and wildlife departments cannot be dismissed lightly. It is not merely the unidimensional approach of the activists or the ‘cynical’ assessment of the media, but what seems lacking is the right kind of attitude of the people concerned for a very strategic and holistic approach.

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