Enriched landscapes for elephants & people in Odisha

Why this project was important

Odisha is one of the top five priority landscapes for elephants in India with an area of contiguous forest the size of Wales.It is also home to a large population of breeding tuskers, offering a great opportunity to secure a future for Asian elephants in the country. 

Major threats to the elephants in Odisha include habitat loss, ivory poaching and conflict with farmers who are affected by crop-raiding elephants that leave the forest to find food. The root cause of this conflict include the degradation of elephant habitat and corridors from mining, quarries, impassable irrigation canals, expanded roads, railway lines and sagging overhead electrical wires crisscrossing the once richly forested landscape. Despite this, thick forests still exist in Odisha, covering around 23,000 km² of the state and offering significant, connected elephant habitats. 

These large patches of prime elephant habitat are affected annually by raging forest fires, started accidentally by villagers or intentionally by forest flower collectors setting dry leaves on fire in an attempt to regenerate flowering plants. These fires not only destroy elephant habitat, but also the plants and seedlings in the forest upon which they feed. Elephant herds try to use their traditional, albeit increasingly disrupted routes, to find adequate food sources, migrating closer to villages and often resorting to crop raiding to supplement their dwindling food sources. 

Odisha’s farmers face huge crop loss and property damage because of such conflict. Each year, we record the death of approximately 50 elephants and lose countless human lives because of this growing conflict. This project sought to address ongoing human-elephant conflict issues and to mitigate threats to wild elephants and their habitat in seven key districts which hold over 50% of the state’s elephant population.  

Project Partner: Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) & Wildlife Society of Orissa (WSO)

Duration: February 2017– 2018

Elephant population of Odisha: 1,800 – 1,950

Project goals

1) Improve natural habitat for elephants and other wildlife to reduce movement into human areas. 

2) Creating awareness in local school children about elephants and the need to protect habitat. 

3) Protecting the lives of both wild elephants and local farmers by addressing the key issues of human-elephant conflict.  

4) Securing the livelihoods of farmers by implementing effective measures that prevent elephants from crop raiding. 

What we did

The project was carried out in seven districts of Odisha – Cuttack, Angul, Sambalpur, Sonepur, Deogarh, Keonjhar and the district of Dhenkenal, which has the highest number of human-elephant conflict cases in the state.  

Ninety villages with high incidences of conflict were targeted to reduce the levels and impacts of conflict. Awareness campaigns about the need to protect elephant habitat were run across local schools and local tribal communities. These campaigns and workshops motivated people, especially women, to adopt sustainable harvesting techniques and promote the planting of elephant fodder plants for viable livelihoods. 

By testing and showcasing elephant habitat improvement methods for the local Forest Department, we encouraged elephant feeding in forest reserves and areas away from crops by regenerating fodder plants, weeding out invasive species and allowing native plant species to regenerate.  

Local communities were also encouraged to make educated decisions not to light fires to regenerate plant species in the forest that they wanted to harvest. When fires get out of control everybody loses. In 2016, our work in Odisha resulted in the local Forest Department massively increasing their budget by over 40% to allocate more time and resources to fight these forest fires, oversee controlled burns and garner support from local communities to report and fight forest fires. 

This project also collected vital threat information from local conservation groups which were used to create an Elephant Threat Map. The map uses GPS data points to highlight the locations of wells, sagging power lines, railway lines, canals and industries within the corridors to monitor existing threats to elephants. The information gathered also helped us feed into a long-term elephant conservation strategy for Odisha and provide recommendations to the State Forest Department. This long-term strategy and constant updates from the field provided the State Government with vital information to help fulfil their commitment to elephant conservation and ensure that industries meet their legal obligations. 

Read more about Odisha in our November 2018 report here