- In August 2021, the National Green Tribunal asked Odisha to notify elephant corridors within two months.
- The state government and other agencies involved had earlier identified 14 corridors but never notified them.
- Environmentalists believe such a notification can give protection to vital corridors from mining and other similar activities.
Prashant Kumar Chatar is an intermediate student from Dhanurjaypur panchayat, which is on the periphery of the Hadgarh Wildlife Sanctuary where an elephant corridor was identified by the Odisha government. Unlike the students from urban areas who have seen elephants mostly in their textbooks, 16-year-old Chatar has often seen the movement of elephants near his village or in the farmlands in the close vicinity of his habitation.
Dhanurjaypur is the last village one can spot on Google Maps, nearest to the Hadgarh-Kuldiha-Similipal Elephant Corridor. Beyond this village, narrow lanes, poor quality roads make their way towards the series of hillocks that are part of the corridor. Some of the villages just below the foothills of these hillocks like Raighati, Siyali and few others are not well connected.
Chatar and many others in his village are unaware of the existence of any proposed elephant corridor near their village but they have witnessed elephant-human conflicts and the damage the farmlands see due to that. They have seen how the forest department and villagers together handled threats due to the movement of elephants near human habitations.
“We have often seen elephants moving on roads close to our village, invading our paddy fields. When the forest department officials notice elephant movement they roam around the villages with mikes announcing about it and asking us to take preventive measures,” he told Mongabay-India while showing Mongabay-India the area that is frequented by elephants.
Many others in the nearby villages informed Mongabay-India that although their area lies close to the Similipal Elephant Reserve, which is one of the three elephant reserves of the state and has a proposed elephant corridor, it has witnessed several mining operations in the past. Over the last few years, those mining activities slowed down due to litigations before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) while one chromite mine is still active.
Sanatan Majhi, a resident of Bangur village which is next to Dhanurjaypur, claimed that a decade ago there were several mines in operation in the area which led to serious damage in the region. He, however, claimed that authorities in his village and two other nearby villages have witnessed at least nine human deaths in the last year due to elephant-human interaction.
Now, the government has installed solar street lights in these villages that are often visited by elephants for better surveillance and safety at night and has also warned people of possible elephant movements beyond Dhanurjapur village, close to the corridor areas.
Can notification of corridors protect elephants?
The Hadgarh-Kuldiha-Similipal Elephant Corridor is one of the 14 elephant corridors proposed by the Odisha government in 2011 but they are not yet notified. Environmentalists from the state approached the NGT to get the corridors notified and on August 17, 2021, the tribunal directed the state government to work towards the notification of the 14 proposed elephant corridors spread over an area of 870.61 square kilometres.
According to the rules, the state government needs to send a proposal of notification of these corridors to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), who could then notify it under the Environment (Protection) Act,1986.
Biswajit Mohanty, the Cuttack-based environmentalist and secretary of Odisha Wildlife Society, who filed the petition before the NGT seeking early notification of these 14 elephant corridors in the state, said that although the concept of elephant corridors could be traced back by at least three decades the state has failed to make them a legal reality so far.
“The state has a strong mining lobby which has put pressure on the forest department to prevent from taking the decision of notification of elephant corridors. The Centre had written to all states to take steps for elephant corridors and the concept of these corridors could be dated back to the 1990s but till now no concrete steps have been taken,” Mohanty alleged.
It was due to Mohanty’s case that the NGT, a few years ago, had ordered maintaining the status quo and asked the authorities to ensure no works are taken on the 14 proposed elephant corridors identified by the Odisha government.
Mohanty explained to Mongabay-India that although the NGT has ordered notification of the elephant corridors, the Odisha government could choose legal options available such as approaching a higher court to delay the matter. “But let them delay it if they want, we are ready to fight the case even up to the level of Supreme Court. If the elephants cannot speak on their own, can’t the government give them their due rights,” he said.
According to experts, elephants use these corridors seasonally to move from one habitat to another for their needs but obstructions like mining and other activities have led to the destruction of these habitats.
Shashi Paul, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) of Odisha, told Mongabay-India that if elephant corridors were notified activities like mining in such sensitive zones will be strictly not allowed. “There are different types of activities that are allowed in different zones of elephant corridor areas which are at par with ecologically sensitive areas. Activities such as mining are strictly not allowed in such zones while some activities (such as transmission lines) could be regulated, where permissions are required from the government. Only environment-friendly works are allowed in such zones,” he informed.
He explained that there are different sets of studies done on elephant corridors in Odisha and there has been no unanimity in such studies and their selection of the corridor areas.
Also, the Odisha government had roped in the Bangalore-based Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) to assess the habitat viability of the elephant corridors and also on the load-bearing capacity of different Elephant Reserves of the state. The ANCF, which had submitted its report to the government in 2017, had recommended expansion of areas of the Mahanadi and Sambalpur Elephant Reserves and also talked about the feasibility of the 14 elephant corridors identified by the government. It had observed that the Hadargh-Kuldiha-Similipal Corridor is ecologically good if mining activity is stopped.
The report, as submitted to the NGT, claimed that out of the 14 corridors nine such corridors were of very poor or poor quality. It said that only four corridors are ecologically feasible – a point which was countered by Biswajit Mohanty before the NGT. These included the Hadagarh-Kuldiha-Similipal Corridor, Buguda-Central RF Corridor, Tal-Kolgarh Corridor and Nuagaon-Baruni Corridor.
“Our study in Odisha was primarily on the carrying capacity of the Elephant Reserves of Odisha and one chapter of the report was about the Elephant Corridors. We had recommended expansion of the two reserves and also proposed another Elephant Corridor-Hatibari Corridor. We have made some recommendations to ensure the welfare of elephants in our report,” R. Sukumar, the head of the ANCF Bangalore told Mongabay-India.
The fight for elephant corridors has been a long journey. In 1992, Project Elephant, a central government programme, was started to work for the welfare of the animal. In 2006, a letter was written by the then Inspector General of Forest of MoEFCC to all the states asking them to provide legal protection to elephant corridors under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and take steps towards its notification.
In 2010, a special Task Force on elephants released a report ‘Gajah’ which talked about steps, such as notifying elephant corridors, the government was required to take to ensure the welfare of the animal. However, so far, only a few regions in the country have attempted it so far.
In fact, according to the 2017 report that estimated the population of elephants in the country, Odisha is home to 1,976 elephants, which is the highest for any state in the east-central region. Chhattisgarh and Odisha alone host 71 percent (2,223) of the elephants of the entire eastern Indian region but both the states are yet to notify elephant corridors primarily due to concerns that legal protection to them could impact activities such as mining.
Elephant corridors could halt mining activities
If the elephant corridors are notified, they could stop mining activities in some regions, which is an important crucial component of the state’s economy. Thus for Odisha to move towards notifying these elephant corridors is not an easy task.
According to Odisha’s Economic Survey 2020-21, mining plays an important role in the growth of the industrial sector in Odisha. The state accounts for India’s 96 percent chromite, 92 percent nickel, 51 percent bauxite, 43 percent of manganese ore, 33 percent of iron ore and 24 percent of coal reserves (as of April 1, 2019). In 2019-20, Odisha’s revenue collection from mining alone was Rs. 110.2 billion (Rs. 11,020.02 crore).
People living in the mining-prone areas claim that elephant-human interaction and the subsequent damage due to that is rising due to decreased space for the movement of the herds.
For instance, Rasanand Behera, a resident of Barbil in Keonjhar district which is known for large scale forest diversion and mining, said what can be said about elephants or other animals, when in areas such as Barbil and Joda (in the Keonjhar district) the space for even human activities have shrunk due to mining. “We are seeing the results of this in our everyday life. Due to mining activities, the forest cover is declining and the movement of elephants is getting disturbed. We need more attention from the state government,” he said.
Bismay Ranjan Tripathy, a research scholar on elephant issues, said that between 2001 and 2018 a total of 35,000 human-elephant conflict cases were reported from the district from 530 different villages under Keonjhar forest division alone.
He claimed that the concentration of elephants in the forests of Keonjhar has also undergone changes. “To ensure better mitigation plans and declare corridors for elephants, we need to focus on assessing elephant habitat utilisation and reconfiguring their movement pathways with respect to the change in the landscape in the past few years,” he told Mongabay-India.
In fact, the data of Odisha’s forest department indicates that most of the mining-prone districts have recorded a high number of human-elephant interaction and crop damage cases due to elephants. The latest Wildlife Odisha Report 2020 of the Odisha government, reviewed by Mongabay-India, claimed that between 2010 and 2019, 104 people were killed during human-elephants interactions in Angul and Athmalik (Angul district) forest divisions alone. Angul district hosts India’s largest coalfield – Talcher.
In terms of crop damages, the highest damages were reported from the mining districts of Dhenkanal (13,174 acre), Angul (12,402 acre) and Keonjhar 9,685 acre) during the same time period.
Banner image: A warning sign cautioning about an “elephant passing zone” in Angul-Deogarh road in the Chhendipada region of Odisha. Photo by Pramit Karmakar.