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Biswajit Mohanty

Over the last few weeks, we have been shocked by the gory sight of dead elephants, ailing bullet-hit elephants suffering a slow death, and elephant skeletons dug out in Athagarh forest division. Many ask me why is the Forest Department unable to stop this elephant massacre going on across the state?   

The death spree continues and recorded elephant deaths have shot in the last one month sparking off wide public concern about the safety and future of our elephants. Are our elephants safe? Or they will go extinct? And why has the forest department abdicated its duty to protect these endangered creatures?

The gory sight of an adult tusker helplessly waving his trunk and legs, writhing in pain broadcast on TV a few weeks ago was a painful revelation of the fate of elephants in Odisha. Ultimately, the bullet ridden animal succumbed to injuries in Narasinghpur West Range, Athagarh Division on 14th June, 2022. Poachers had fired upon it about a month ago and it was battling for life for a week as veterinarians desperately tried to save him. Had the local MLA of Badamba-Narasinghpur not posted it on Facebook, the rush to dispatch the best veterinarians would not have happened and the elephant would have been quietly buried and the case covered up as usual, maybe citing disease/infighting as a cause.

Inside forests and sanctuaries across Odisha, similar cover-ups and concealments keep happening. Though in the Athagarh division, where the STF dug out the remains of a poached tusker in Narasinghpur West Range on 8th February 22 and once again on 2nd & 3rd June’22 in Badamba Range, followed up by another on 14th June’22, and one more on 27th in the same range, the sordid practice could continue. 

Despite the suspension of a Range Officer, the practice doesn't seem to stop as stringent action like jail and termination of job under Article 311 of the Constitution was not recommended by senior officers. The enquiry reports are obviously a sham since it is by the people who supervise the field staff. Demands for inclusion of independent wildlife crime experts are ignored as obviously cover ups will be exposed.

We saw a similar attempts of concealment in the Bhagipada section of Boudh Division last month on 26th May, after which the Range Officer was suspended. Less than a week ago, an attempt to cover up the actual cause of death of a tusker who died due to a bullet wound in Padiabahal Range of Sambalpur was foiled by activists and media. The DFO and the Vet had claimed that the injuries were due to infighting which was disproved after a steel bullet was recovered from body during post mortem. Only four days ago another male elephant’s remains were dug out in the Jilinda range of Satkosia Wildlife Division. 

Of late, numerous cases of attempt to conceal elephant bodies or cover-up the cause of an elephant death have been exposed by the locals, activists, the STF-CB of Police and the media. Even though it is difficult to conceal an elephant death, the Odisha’s forest department appears to have mastered the art of concealing or covering-up elephant deaths and mislead public on the actual cause of death.

Since unnatural deaths continue to be covered up or reported as natural, ivory poachers continue to act with impunity knowing well that the protectors themselves would shield them. They merrily continue with their shooting as they know the targeted dead elephant would be buried and no case will be registered thanks to these cover up artists.

The table summarises the breakup of elephant deaths in the last 12 years and 3 months:

 Total  Deaths  Natural  Unknown  Poaching  Electrocution  Train kill  Road kill
       954    429      204     135       144     36       6

The natural deaths recorded is about 45 per cent of the total. Of the remaining, the reason could not be ascertained in as many as 204 death cases. This was primarily because either the bodies were highly decomposed, some of them were down to skins and bones, and majority could be deaths caused by poaching. It is to be noted that many carcasses are detected after several weeks of death which reveals the awful breakdown of patrolling by the forest department. Usually it is a local goat herder or sal leaf collector who provides information.

It is impossible to hide a dead elephant unlike other smaller animals. Poachers abandon the body after hacking off the tusk. The body rots and stinks and the locals who enter the forest are bound to notice this and report to the forest department. 

WHY COVER-UPS AND CONCEALMENT 

A circular issued in 2012 by the Odisha government, which was meant to hold Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) and the Range Officer (RO) accountable for each and every unnatural death of elephants has remained on paper till now. Except for a few ROs, no DFO has been held accountable in any enquiry under this circular. A DFO who is never held accountable would obviously turn a blind eye to foul plays and lend his tacit support to such cover-ups.

The finding of an elephant body whose death is unnatural would mean registering a case, investigating and trying to apprehend the culprits, which obviously is a tedious work for an officer and staff who prefers to take up the ‘lucrative’ plantation and eco-tourism work instead of protecting wildlife and punishing offenders. With crores of funds being dumped on the field, forest officers are more interested in such money spending activity instead of running after wildlife poachers.

The fear of being punished with suspension for dereliction of duty prompt lower level staff not to report an unnatural death as seniors of the division do not offer any support or instil confidence. 

Misleading information from the field are easy for a department staff if they occur deep inside the forest or atop a hill as senior officers like the Range Officer, ACF, and DFO seldom tour remote areas. I have rarely seen a DFO doing a trek deep inside the forest to review protection measures like patrolling, intelligence gathering etc.

Barring a few, the veterinary doctors who carry out the post-mortem or test the blood and viscera samples, follow suggestions from the Range Officer or DFO and for obvious reasons cite ‘safe’ or non-poaching reasons for elephant deaths, thereby covering up the actual cause of death.   

ANTHRAX – A CONVENIENT EXCUSE:

In the last seven years it has been observed that DFOs and Range Officers have found a convenient excuse to cover up unnatural elephant deaths by citing Anthrax as the cause, thereby eliminating the need to carry out a proper post-mortem and investigation for any other cause of death. An RTI response from Animal Disease Research Institute (ADRI), Phulnakhara revealed that of the 20 samples received by them mostly from Similipal, Hadgarh and Kuldiha sanctuaries between August 2017 and December 2019, only 2 were found to be Anthrax positive which meant 90 percent of the suspected Anthrax cases were false.  

After realising this, I had immediately requested the Chief Wildlife Warden to issue directions to reopen these 18 cases which were clearly covered up on the false cause of Anthrax. They were unnatural deaths and needed investigation. Sadly, my demand was not agreed to which reveals that even the senior-most officers of the department do not believe in uncovering the truth and punishing the guilty.

Here are some of prominent cases (not exhaustive) over the last ten years where the department’s failure was exposed as officers tried to cover up and mislead public and the government on the actual cause of death:

December 2, 2012 Dukura forest range, Baripada Divison, Mayurbhanj - An elephant carcass was buried in Malpani forest. When exposed, the department officers first tried to pass this case as death of a female elephant. But following an enquiry and a proper second post-mortem, it was found that it was a male elephant whose tusks had been stolen. 
June 17, 2015 Locals alleged that a male elephant was poached in Kanapeju forest of Daspalla Range of Nayagarh Forest Division, but Range Officer had dismissed the claim by calling the elephant a buffalo. A team of journalists caught some forest department staff on camera while they were trying to hide the skeletal remains. After the expose, a high level investigation by the RCCF revealed the truth. 
May 20, 2016 Skeletal remains of an elephant were found in the Landakote RF, Charmal Range of Rairakhol Forest Division. The department declared that the remains were that of a 4-year-old male calf but experts who saw the photographs put the age at about 12-15 years. Interestingly, the missing tusks, that of a small elephant, were recovered from somewhere even as the department wanted to prove it was a calf. The tusks were found to be way too small for the sockets of the recovered skull. 
Sept 10, 2016 An adult female elephant and a calf of 6 months were found dead near Niyuti village, Gurgudia  Range, Karanjia Forest Division, Mayurbhanj district. On the evening of 9th Sept, villagers had heard the cries of the elephants and visited the spot after the cries subsided, only to find the two bodies with blood oozing out of the trunk and anus. Locals and wildlife activists strongly suspected this to be a case of poisoning by farmers but the department promptly declared them as Anthrax victims and buried them. Later, it was found though an RTI that these were not Anthrax deaths.
Nov 9, 2016 An adult pregnant female elephant was found dead on the outskirts of Nua Keshala village, Barkote Forest Range, Deogarh Division. Locals had found injury marks on the left foreleg due to electrocution by live wire set by poachers but the department declared it as a case of infighting death which normally does not happen with females. 
Nov 10, 2016 An adult female and a male calf of 18 months were found dead together in Bakati Village, Loisingha Range of Bolangir district. The Range officer described this as a case of mother falling from a height over her calf killing both of them. The local Veterinarian found cardiac arrest as the reason for the mother's death. The DFO however suspected that they have died due to Anthrax and disposed off the body in a hurry. A week later, a local daily released close-up pictures of electrocution mark on trunk and naked wire nearby to expose the shocking cover up by the department.  
Dec 15, 2017 Two-month-old skeletal remains of a male elephant whose tusks had been removed were found under a tree in the Putiputigadha RF, Kantamal  Range, Boudh Division. The Range Officer claimed that the elephant had died after being hit by the branch of the tree. Newspapers had reported that on 14th Nov, two elephant poachers had been held while eight others had escaped in Matakupa RF of the same Kantamal range while they were carrying the dead male’s tusks to sell them. 
Dec 16, 2018 An adult male of about 20 years was found dead in a pool of blood beside a canal in Digapahandi Range, Berhampur Division. The body had multiple gaping wounds on the head. Interestingly, the age of the adult tusker was stated by the department as 5 years and a clear as day light case of killing was converted into a natural death. 
Jan 22, 2019 An adult male elephant of about 30 years was found dead near Goudiabarada village, Buguda Range, Ghumsur South Division, Ganjam district. The department officials passed it off as natural cause, but when the body was rolled over, burn marks were found and locals informed the media about burnt grass and shared pictures confirming this to be case of electrocution by live wire laid for poaching.
Oct 22, 2019 An adult male elephant was found dead 500 meters away from Badapati village, Badmal Range, Rairakhol Division, Sambalpur district. Locals found clear signs of electrocution but the DFO declared it as a case of Anthrax. Later, it was confirmed through an RTI response from ADRI that it was Anthrax negative.
Nov 10, 2019 An adult male elephant was found dead in Barasingha RF, Narsinghpur West range, Athagarh Forest Division. The post-mortem and the burial were carried out in a hurry to hide actual cause - bullet holes on the trunk and head. It was an injured male elephant who had been shot and was being tracked for treatment by the Hindol range staff of adjoining Dhenkanal division.
June 20, 2020 An adult Makhana elephant was found dead in Gudimara RF, Chhendipada Range, Angul Division, Angul district. The DFO suspected it to be case of Anthrax and carried out a deep burial without waiting for the post-mortem though there were clear signs of electrocution. Later, through an RTI response from OUAT and ADRI it was found that they had not even received any samples for tests. 
Aug 10, 2021 An adult male elephant succumbed to grievous injuries near Putipal, Ranjagada RF, Kamakhyanagar East Range, Dhenkanal district. The department some days ago had claimed that the male was shot with hot arrows by tribals in adjoining Telkoi range of Keonjhar district to drive him off their farm lands. The two pieces of metals recovered from deep inside the body turned out to be locally made bullets which must have been shot from a muzzle loader gun.  Though this was a clear case of poaching by professional ivory hunters, very strangely, the department did not carry out further investigation stating that tribal farmers were trying to protect their farm lands and hence it was not a poaching case.
Sept 24, 2021 An adult male elephant got trapped in Mundali due to very strong current of the Mahanadi River due to flood waters. A huge crowd had gathered thwarting any possibility of him climbing up the river ban. The next day the department claimed that the exhausted male tried to move downstream and may have died hitting the head against the barrage wall. Locals claimed that fire balls/rockets were fired at him in presence of the department officers which compelled him to go downstream resulting in the death. Videos of the same had also gone viral but not a single senior officer was held responsible. The enquiry still continues without result though 9 months have passed since then.
June 21, 2022 Sapalahara village, Padiabahal Range, Sambalpur Division. An ailing male elephant was treated for a leg injury inside a pond, but it was too late. The cause of death was given as infighting but after a country-made bullet was recovered during the post-mortem, an attempt to cover up the poaching was foiled by activists and the media.

The above 15 cases which we have listed over the last 12 years do not depict the whole story. It is illustrative of what is happening in the field. Not a single Range Officer or DFO faced serious action in any of the above cases where they have made a clear attempt to hide the true cause of death to conceal the fact that it was an unnatural death possibly due to poaching which needs to be registered as a case with follow up investigation. Due to such utter lack of fixing of accountability the cover-ups continue unhindered.

I have been unsuccessfully pushing Project Elephant and Odisha Forest Department for the last seven years to follow a post mortem protocol as followed for tiger deaths provided by NTCA. Every tiger death post mortem is video recorded and conducted in presence of at least two independent wildlife experts/conservationists to ensure transparency. The presence of independent observers during post mortem prevents such malpractices. 

Some concealed deaths that were exposed: 

Apart from misleading and cover-up of the actual cause of death, there have been several cases where department officers had made efforts to conceal the death itself which were exposed thanks to vigilant wildlife activists, journalists and locals.

Oct 4, 2012 Media broke a story on how the department staff had attempted to unsuccessfully burn the body of an adult male whose tusks had been removed in the Katuria Forest, under Noto RF, Kaptipada Forest Range, Baripada Division. Though the department did not confirm poaching due to the putrefied condition, the local Forester was promptly suspended. 
Feb 27, 2013 A local journalist broke the story about how an adult male’s body was burnt by the staff in the Langolokhola forest of Baisapalli, Mahanadi Wildlife Division. Local villagers had spotted a half-burnt skeleton with charred trees around it. It was later found that that this death was not even reported officially by the department.
Jan 18, 2019 Acting on a tip-off by local activists, the body of a calf was exhumed in the Raipal Beat, Kaptipada Forest Range, Baripada Division. Forest guard had buried an elephant calf's body on 13th Jan'19 without informing higher ups. The Forest Guard was suspended for dereliction of duty.
Sept 6, 2021 A local daily broke the news regarding poaching of an elephant near Bhutel  in Jamankira Forest Range, Bamra Wildlife Division, Sambalpur disrict.  An adult male had been poached and his tusks were removed by hacking the head and removing the trunk, probably the handiwork of professional poachers. Department staff burned the body but it came to light on 2nd Sept'21 due to foul smell. 
Oct 1, 2021 A video went viral showing half buried skeletal remains of an elephant found just outside Satkosia sanctuary border in Bantala Range. Initially the Range Officer rejected the claim saying that the bones were eight years old and thrown in his range to defame him. Later when the bones were actually verified it was confirmed that an elephant had indeed died there several months ago. 
Oct 19, 2021 Locals of Jhankarpalli village, Bhimkhoj Section, Sadar Range of Sambalpur Division reported to the media about the burning and burial of a poached tusker in the adjoining Munderchuan RF. News reports compelled the senior department officers to investigate and exhume the skeletal remains and sending the remains for forensic tests. It is more than 7-8 months now but the department claims test results have not come yet. Recent news reports have alleged that the department may not have sent the bones to any forensic lab with a hope that people will forget and the case will be wrapped up.
Nov 1, 2021 A viral video of the disposal of a tusker's body in the Athagarh range of Athagarh Forest Division emerged. An investigation by the RCCF, Angul Circle revealed that the elephant’s death was not registered in the Range office or DFO's office and the tusks were not deposited in the treasury. It meant that the elephant death was suppressed at the Range and DFO office. Though the DFO denied that the elephant had been poached, the way the case was concealed, appeared otherwise. The Range Officer was suspended following the enquiry.
Feb 8, 2022 The STF–CB of Police, acting on reliable information, dug out the body of a male elephant in the Barsingha beat of Narasinghpur West Range, Athagarh Forest Division. As per media reports, the body had been burnt and buried after removing the tusks. During investigation by the RCCF, the two tusks miraculously reappeared out of nowhere raising suspicion whether the tusks actually belonged to the burnt and buried tusker. Notably, the STF was prevented by the department staff on 7th Feb’22 from digging up another elephant body in the same range, just 8 kms away in Jaipur Beat. Though the Range officer was found guilty after an internal investigation and suspended for the Barasingha Beat case, the Jaipur Beat case has not been exposed till now.
March 21, 2022 Several news papers broke the news about another highly decomposed body down to bones and skins which was recovered up a hill near Naijhari, this time in Narasinghpur East Forest Range of the Athagarh Forest Division. No action was taken against any officer or staff and the case was wrapped up hurriedly.
May 26, 2022 A day after a poaching case was reported from the Bhurkipada RF, Bhagiapada Section of Boudh Division, overnight, the forest department staff hurriedly buried the decomposed body remains of another male elephant who had died around the same time. An attempt was apparently made to completely conceal the case as the burial spot was made to appear like a forest road construction. Villagers however foiled the bid and informed the local reporters who found some body parts, phenyl bottle and salt at the spot.
June 2, 2022 The STF – CB of Police, acting on a tip-off, dug out the body of a male elephant near Kharod in the Chandragiri RF of Badamba Range, Athagarh Forest Division. The tusks had been hacked off. 
June 3, 2022 Another body of a female elephant was exhumed by the STF – CB of Police near Jenapala village in a private land. The local staffs including the Range Officer were promptly suspended. 
June 14, 2022 Near Mahakali Temple, Kharod village, Chandragiri RF, Badamba Range, Athagarh Division, Cuttack. Investigation on the two bodies found by the STF led the department to digging up another male elephant's body with missing tusks.
June 25, 2022 Near Satyajaipur village, Jilinda Beat, Jodum Section, Jilinda Range, Satkosia Wildlife Division, Angul. Acting on intelligence reports, the DFO of Satkosia Division dug out the skeletal remains of an adult male elephant with tusks missing whose body had been buried about a year ago. The suspended Forester admitted to the concealment giving a precise date of burial as 6th May, 2021.
June 27, 2022 Another elephant skeleton was found in Gopapur range under Baramba forest division. The skeleton was spotted by STF which accompanied the Special Investigating Team that included Athagarh DFO, CCF of Angul circle and a DSP of Odisha Crime Branch to probe elephant poaching in the area. 

ZERO LEGAL ACTION

There is terrible lack of legal action against elephant poachers. The department does indeed nab some poachers, maybe apprehending trouble due to public pressure. But what happens after that? The criminal is out on bail within a week and back to his nefarious crimes. Not a single poacher has been found convicted by the courts in the last two decades though there are at least 20-25 officially recorded poaching cases every year. The DFO is the wildlife warden of every Division and is the one responsible for filing and prosecuting. How many DFOs have faced disciplinary action for failing to ensure conviction of even one elephant poacher? None in fact.

WILL THINGS CHANGE? 

We need to remember that there is no dearth of funds, vehicles or manpower or legal powers to protect elephants. There are 24-hour elephant squads that are supposed to track tuskers in the field round the clock. Clearly, they are ineffectual. Many names on the rolls are fake or would be diverted for other unofficial works like deployment for domestic duties at houses of retired senior forest officers in Bhubaneswar.

How do we  ensure our elephants roam freely without falling to the bullets of the poachers? It has to start with accountability. Unless officers are held responsible, I do not see any improvement in the protection status. And fixing of accountability has to start from the top. Chhattisgarh Forest Department promptly transferred nine IFS officers including the Chief Wildlife Warden when 6 elephants died within 11 days in June 2020. 

I have never seen our Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik take interest in elephant protection and adopt similar steps which would send a strong message to the rest of the department to do their work diligently. Our numerous appeals to him have fallen on deaf ears!

A big reason for non-fixing of accountability is the demon of corruption that has engulfed the Odisha forest department in the last one decade. Due to the massive influx of CAMPA funds for plantations, water ponds, etc there is unprecedented scope to earn huge money by faking vouchers or through sub-standard work. The payoff chain is rumoured to continue upto the senior-most levels which has led to the collapse of governance.  

There are reports of elephant death enquiries fizzling out as the field staff are rumoured to pay bribes to seniors to exonerate them. Earlier, the forest department used to conduct kendu leaf auctions only. Now the auction of field posts is also being done with highest bidders getting lucrative field postings! In such a situation it is hopeless to expect any accountability of the field officers.

Let the accountability start with the Chief Wildlife Warden. He needs to explain what steps he has taken, and what punishment he has awarded to delinquent staff to save elephants. He has to account for the crores of rupees of public funds being spent in the name of elephant protection. Things down the line will change after this.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author is a conservationist and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. He can be reached at kachhapa@gmail.com) 

More From The Author: The Invisible Tigers Of Odisha!

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