Only a week ago, Odisha woke up to a rescue operation that was meant to salvage a large pachyderm marooned in the swirling waters of Mahanadi. Such a boat operation to rescue an elephant has been unheard of in the annals of wild animal rescue missions across the world. The State went gaga over it. Hooters gathered overhead to film the rescue stunts.
However, by the night hours, Odisha went to bed grieving the death of OTV chief reporter and a brave scribe Arindam Das, who had accompanied the ODRAF rescue ops. A day later, the recovery of ODRAF scuba expert Sitaram Murmu's body and the carcass of the trapped jumbo had not only jolted the State deep within but also documented how the 'Operation' launched had been a colossal failure.
"Megafauna rescue needs immense patience and planning, even backup planning, " a study by WTI-IFAW (Wildlife Trust of India and International Fund For Animal Welfare) has clearly observed.
Here lies the catch. The ODRAF team that was requisitioned for the operation had no backup when they met with the accident. More so, the death of the megafauna, nearly 17 hours later had also amplified the lack of backup planning.
Mahanadi - A Habitual Jumbo Trapper
Even as Odisha has a resilient disaster mitigation force in the avatar of ODRAF, the mega undoing for the State's disaster fighting lies in its failure to learn its lessons.
October 16, 2018: It's almost the same location. Mahanadi was full to the brim following the heavy downpour induced by Cyclone Titli. Mundali gates opened to rush out the floodwaters, and nearly half a dozen elephants, including two calves, were trapped in the current of the gushing floodwaters. While some swam across, nearly 5 stay trapped.
No ODRAF was requisitioned by the then Athagarh DFO. Rather, they closed the gates of the Mundali barrage to control the gushing flow. And the jumbos, who are natural swimmers, find their way to the woods safely.
The Outcome: A beaming smile on every face - from the general public to wildlife enthusiasts.
But when an ENCORE happened on September 25, 2021, the scenario ended in the chaos that leave the State badly grieving.
As per an analysis, the corridor of Athagarh to Chandaka has been used by jumbos most often, and during the months of August to October, the large mammals face the raging Mahanadi. A study of the ecological traits of elephants reveals that they hardly enter into a river in spate. "Jumbos use their trunks to test the water level before trudging through swollen rivers," the study revealed.
Moreover. studies show elephants are mostly caught unawares by a sudden gush of waters in the river system. In 2018 too, the jumbo herd got trapped following the sudden release of water from Mundali.
And it is for their this natural trait and the exigent circumstances, only a few jumbos get trapped in the swirling waters of Mahanadi or elsewhere in India, not all.
Now Consider Another Instance.
August 14, 2018: An elephant was found trapped in the flooded Chalakkudypuzha river. Tribal locals sent an SOS to the Kerala forest range office in Thrissur district. The Kerala Forest Department immediately spoke to the Peringalkooth Dam Authorities to down the shutters.
Remember, the trapped elephant in Kerala involves a dam, not a barrage like in Odisha.
Downing the shutters here involves an alarming level of risk. Because, in a dam, water is allowed to let through the sluice gates, only after it touches the danger level. The water level in the dam was 422.5mt against the FRL of 424 mt (Mundali Height only around 80mt).
Therefore, the Kerala dam authorities explained the risks ingrained. They observed, it can be done for limited hours, but if the rescue work cannot be wrapped up in the time period, then none can save the trapped jumbo.
Kerala Forest Department had sought a five-hour window. The window was granted. And with great patience rescue operation was launched by the forest officials (not disaster mitigation force). Crackers busted to hasten the trapped jumbo to move on. With the surging waters having been controlled temporarily, the jumbo recognising the receding levels swam to the woods within an hour.
The upshot here is the 'Mission' achieved. All - elephant, rescue team and tribals - returned home, not with a heavy heart.
The September 25 'Operation Elephant' bares the jumbo failure of the Odisha Forest Department. Despite having on record that the Athgarh-Chandaka elephant corridor passes through Mahanadi, and with many such previous instances of elephants getting trapped in floodwaters of the mighty Mahanadi, the department has no permanent plans or modus operandi to 'fix' the problem.
Meanwhile, noted wildlife enthusiast Biswajit Mohanty has shot off a missive to the State Forest Department asking for laying a ramp along with the barrage or dams that fall in the elephant corridors in Odisha.
“We have observed that the trapped tusker made at least two attempts on that day to climb out of the river by walking to the end of the barrage spillway and walking up the shore towards a suitable slope to climb up. Unfortunately, for a length of more than 100 feet, there is a sharp straight and tall concrete wall to protect the river bank from scouring which prevented him from climbing. Had there been an 8 feet concrete/stone ramp leading to the top of the embankment at that point he could have climbed up. Building a ramp does not compromise the safety of the river bank and hence this measure can be considered as a mitigation plan,” he wrote.