Visit to Odisha

In November 2018 Elephant Family travelled to the state of Odisha, east India, to witness first-hand the issues faced by Asia’s endangered elephants. Joined by photographer, Roger Allen, it was a trip that put the plight of wild elephants into sharp focus.

The Odisha Elephant Tragedy

We arrived in Odisha shortly after the largest single loss of elephant life hit the headlines in India. Seven elephants – one pregnant and one a calf – were electrocuted by a low hanging 11KV power line as they crossed through paddy fields on the night of October 26/27 in Angul district.

They were buried where they fell. Their grave – a vast area of disturbed soil in the shadow of a coal fired power station and lattice-work of electricity pylons, railway lines, roads and villages – had been covered in salt and hummed with a thousand flies in the sticky midday heat. Visiting to pay our respects and to lay garlands of marigolds we were joined by villagers who told of their horror at the gruesome discovery of the elephant’s bodies.  The deaths occurred during the festival of Gaja Laxmi – a goddess, when accompanied by an elephant, who brings wealth and prosperity.

“The elephant’s deaths mean that good luck has left this place now,” one villager told us with a deep sense of loss.

Part of the power line that killed them, a black cable strung feebly between wonky wooden poles, has been sent for forensic tests to form part of the body of evidence to be used to press charges of negligence against the energy company and the Forest department.

“Campaigners and conservationists have been asking the Forest Department to correct these sagging power lines for over two years and nothing had been done,” explains Elephant Family’s Vicky Flynn who accompanied press photographer Roger Allen to Odisha. “The frustration of it taking the death of these precious elephants for the power company to act is palpable across India; villagers, conservationists and activists are demanding answers and the resignation of the Minister of Forests and Environment. This is an issue that has sparked debate and brought attention to the plight of India’s elephants – no one wants Odisha to be known as India’s elephant graveyard.”

Harassment on the hill

But it seems there is little respite for the animal that is worshipped as a god in India. On our first night we got a tip-off that a migratory herd of about 45 elephants had been spotted crossing over a sparsely forested hill. Driven by their stomachs elephants need to feed almost continually and with little left in the denuded forest for a hungry herd they were heading for the paddy fields that patchwork the landscape.

We joined a growing crowd made up principally of young men who’d come on foot and by motorbike to watch the elephants. A tusker was spotted and the excitement levels began to rise as we watched him browse on the hillside, occasionally lifting his head from the tree-line to assess the situation. It would be his decision whether or not to lead the herd down into the fields.

As darkness fell the mood changed. A boy broke from the crowd and ran shouting and flashing a torch as the elephant descended, other boys followed goading and teasing the elephant, taking photographs with their phones, their voices ringing into the black night.  The elephant, said to be from a herd that had migrated 300km in search of food, made a mock charge to test the crowd, managing only to incite them further.

A young elephant is tormented in the torch light

The forest rangers, who had been tracking the herd throughout the day so that they could alert villagers and road users of elephant movements, were powerless to act against the highly charged crowd. The excited mob continued to provoke the elephant until finally he retreated – for now, the game was over.

“That the elephant did not mount a full charge probably means he comes from an area that is densely populated, he’s used to humans,” explained Biswajit Mohanty who has been working to protect wildlife in the region for twenty years. It was little consolation on a night that had made us feel ashamed to be human.

Sabita Sahoo – elephant attack survivor

It is the harassment of elephants that leads to most conflict with people. And, in the harsh light of a new day, a visit to meet Sabita Sahoo in the Dhenkanal District was a sobering reminder of what happens when a stressed elephant decides he’s had enough.

In May 2017, as dawn broke, Sabita was picking flowers ten metres from her house when a large tusker broke through a wall at the end of a narrow alley and into the village. He’d been feeding close by during the night and was returning to the forest when a gang of men blocked his path and chased him back. With nowhere to go and deeply agitated, the tusker found his path blocked again, this time by Sabita.

“It was a surprise, elephants don’t usually come to the village,” she told us. “He picked me up and threw me onto the roof and, as I fell back to the ground speared me with his tusks.”

The elephant left Sabita for dead. Every bone on her left side was broken but, after seven months of hospital care she is able to tell her story. The villagers are now too frightened to go out at night and a fight for compensation to cover her 700,000 rupee (£70,000) medical bills is ongoing. To-date she has received just 5,000 rupees (£500).  While the state does pay compensation for the loss of crops and life caused by elephants, it does not have a sliding scale for injury claims – largely because few people survive an attack of the type faced by Sabita. Steps are being taken to rectify this and in a landscape of conflict, emolliating the situation to prevent the demonization of elephants is a vital part of helping them survive.

Like the death of the seven elephants by electrocution, here was another tragedy that could have been prevented, that could have had a very different ending had people understood the consequences of blocking an elephant’s path.

Bearing the scars of the elephant attack

Dicing with death

As we travelled away from Sabita’s village, trying to comprehend what it would be like to find an angry 5,500kg elephant at your front door, a call came through that the same herd of elephants we had seen on the hill the night before was trying to cross a major road to reach their nightly feeding grounds. Running the gauntlet of crossing the congested roads that criss-cross India is nothing new for elephants, but this herd was new to the area and had chosen a crossing place unfamiliar to forest staff and to drivers. Helping them to cross safely, we were warned, was not going to be easy.

We pulled up next to the forest rangers 4×4 alongside a string of cars and motorbikes parked haphazardly on the roadside belonging to people who had heard the news that the elephants were about to cross the road. Stepping out of the car we were met a wall of noise; continuous streams of cars, bikes and lorries blasted their horns into the night under a smog of fumes, excited voices rang out over the din, it was hard to believe that a herd of wild elephants was restlessly waiting to cross this deadly highway.

In an effort to control the crossing, the forest rangers had lit fires on the scrubby, litter ridden verges in an attempt to guide the elephants to cross between them, scars of orange flames rippled in the fractured darkness competing with the headlights of the continuous, roaring traffic. The crowd was growing. Some of the boys who had taunted the elephants the night before on the hillside were back and shouting ‘Hathi hathi’ – ‘elephant elephant’ – their banshee cries rising into the confusion as a dozen flash lights sent blinding beams into the scrub land bordering the road, picking out the green reflection of the elephants eyes and the shifting, hunched shapes of the agitated herd.

“There was a sense of chaos. As on the previous night the crowd was too big, too unruly to be controlled. Traffic was slowing, curious to know what was going on. Congestion was building. The crowd surged and jeered. Lorries blasted their horns. Firecrackers, thrown by the boys thundered through the undergrowth triggering nervous rumbling from the herd that didn’t know which way to turn,” said Vicky Flynn. “For me, the choice was simple. I stepped back behind our vehicle, fighting back the tears of frustration, my eyes fixed on where the herd might cross, desperate for a peaceful resolution for the tormented herd.”

Eventually, the traffic was stopped and an uneasy peace descended. Someone shouted and the crackle of undergrowth announced the presence of a tusker at the roadside. Sentinel, he stood, eyes focused on the opposite side of the road, his short tusks glinting in the torch light. Beside him a young adult stepped apprehensively out onto the road. The crowd exploded with shouts and firecrackers and torchlight flashed on the young elephant’s flanks sending him scampering back into the undergrowth with a guttural cry.

“From where I was standing I had a good view of the tusker. His composure was resolute. He did not flinch as time and again the same young elephant broke from the darkness and was driven back by the crowd. My heart was in my mouth. I couldn’t understand why the crowd wouldn’t shut up and let them pass in peace,” added Vicky Flynn. “Some were shouting for them to cross, others didn’t want them to, they didn’t want their paddy fields and villages damaged. The stress of the herd – and the crowd – was palpable.”

For fifteen minutes the young elephant tried to cross under the protective gaze of the tusker – each time he was forced back by the shouting mob and then, as if there was a collective decision that it was now or never the herd burst out of the scrub; mothers, calves, young adults, nervously trumpeting, hurrying, heads down under the strobing spotlights and hooligan jeers, to the fields beyond.

“I had never seen anything like it,” said photographer Roger Allen. “It was one of the most upsetting experiences of my life. You could feel the fear of the herd and the aggression of the crowd – it felt like a war zone.”

Caught in the cross lights – the herd runs the gauntlet every night. Image: Roger Allen

This was not a one-off, the same herd will have to negotiate the same highway everyday as it moves from the forests to its feeding grounds. And across Asia herds of elephants trapped by networks of roads, railways, low hanging power lines, open wells, mines and canals must run the same gauntlet to survive. Many don’t make it.

Elephant orphans

Reeling from the experience, we woke the next morning to the news that 200km to the north a tusker had been killed in a wire trap set up by wild boar poachers. A magnificent adult male with long creamy tusks brought down in his prime now lay lifeless in a field.

The impact of these largely preventable deaths has many consequences, including the orphaning of young elephants. At a rescue centre in the Dhenkanal district four young elephants are being cared for under the expert care of head keeper Anil Ch Das. Kartik aged 10, Chandu aged 8, Uma aged 6 and Raja, just 8 months old have either lost their mothers or failed to be reunited with their herds. In India, no animal rescued from the wild can be put on public display or used for entertainment, so this fractured little family resides in a protected area bordered by a large lake and forests.

“Although each elephant’s story is one of trauma, meeting the orphans was a welcome relief after the catalogue of wildlife emergencies we’d experienced in just three days in Odisha,” said Vicky Flynn. “Being in close proximity to them is humbling. Their gentleness is overwhelming.”

And then there is Raja – 8 months old and full of life, elephants don’t come much cuter!  Covered in wiry baby hair and unable to use his trunk properly he’s a bundle of elephant joy as he makes a nuisance of himself with his new elephant family and cries when keeper Anil Ch Das is out of sight. We arrive in time for their daily bath and follow the herd down to the lake. The three older elephants slide down the muddy bank and immerse themselves with grateful rumbles into the cool water, swimming as if they were weightless and playing gently together, while Raja fidgets in the mud, unsure. It’s only when Anil Ch Das wades in that Raja plucks up the courage to follow, but not too far…

Orphan, 8 month old Raja tests the water with Anil Ch Das

Spending time with the orphans you realize how incredible elephants are and how, in a perfect world, they would be wild and free, roaming with their herds across the richly forested landscapes that they have enjoyed for millennia.

“Sadly, as human populations grow, those landscapes are disappearing,” says Elephant Family’s Vicky Flynn. “But, through carefully targeted conservation projects and education programmes that help people and elephants co-exist, there is hope for Asia’s elephants and for every little Raja growing up in the wild.”

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