High power cables cut across India’s forests and wildlife corridors much the same way railway tracks do. And even as deaths through railway accidents remain a problem, electrocutions are emerging as another threat to elephant lives.
On October 26, seven elephants died in Odisha’s Dhenkanal district after coming in contact with a sagging 11-kV power line. This takes the total tally of elephant electrocutions in the state to 12 since only August 2018.
“Electrocutions have become the second leading cause of unnatural elephant deaths in Odisha,” Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of the Wildlife Society of Orissa, told The Wire.
As many as 461 elephant electrocutions occurred between 2009 and 2017, per the environment ministry, of which over a hundred deaths occurred in Odisha alone. Before that, between 2000 and 2010, Odisha witnessed 77 elephant electrocutions.
These figures don’t represent deaths due to sagging power lines alone. In some cases, poachers also used high-power lines to attack elephants. At the same time, documents shared by Mohanty with The Wire show that deaths due to sagging power lines has increased in the past two years.
In the Odisha incident, the cable in question was supplying electricity for the construction of a railway track. Left to droop seven to eight feet above ground, instead of the prescribed 20 feet, it ended up electrocuting seven elephants from a herd of over 13.
One reason electrocution harms a large portion of an elephant herd is rooted in animal behaviour. When animals of a herd encounter a threat, they issue a distress call and huddle together, according to Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, a PhD student at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. Vijayakrishnan studies elephant behaviour in the Western Ghats of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He said that avoiding such accidents is not complicated. “It only requires maintaining high-power live wires at a prescribed height, so that elephants don’t come in contact with them.”
Taking note of the risks, the environment ministry revised the guidelines for power-line resurrection in forest areas two years ago. Per the latest directives, power-lines in forests should either be underground or enclosed in insulating cables hoisted above the height of an elephant’s trunk. It also states that local power supply units should maintain these cables. However, in Odisha, despite reminders from the forest department, the state-run Central Electricity Supply Unit (CESU) failed to take these steps.
So Sandeep Tripathy, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), has blamed the incident on CESU. He has specifically cited the lack of upkeep of a sagging power line stretching across 137 km in the Meramundali section of Dhenkanal range. Tripathy said that the cabling of power lines in the Kamalanga area had been proposed earlier to prevent such a mishap. He added that the CESU was given funds for increasing the height of the electrical poles.
After this incident, Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, has ordered an inquiry. His government has also suspended six officials, the forest division has suspended three field officers and the CESU, one junior officer.
Elephants are Schedule I animals protected under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Killing them is punishable by law. But in Odisha, where electrocution has claimed the lives of over a hundred elephants, not a single officer from the electricity distribution company has gone to jail, nor has anyone been convicted under said Act. “When cases are lodged, they are registered against the junior-most officers. That is why the situation hasn’t changed,” Mohanty told The Wire.
What is even more troubling is that, despite the rise in animal deaths due to electrocution, local power supply units have never had to pay any compensation for the loss of animal life or even fines for defaulting.
“There have been many discussions on these issues at the highest levels of the ministry, but the state has failed to comply with the prescribed guidelines,” Mohanty added. For example, information collected by the Wildlife Society of Orissa indicates that power lines have not been routinely inspected. In the six years between April 1, 2011, and December 15, 2016, no one inspected the power lines in the region.
Then there is the problem of electrocutions due to human-wildlife conflict. “Despite 29 elephant reserves sprawled over 65,000 sq. km, about 70% of India’s elephants live outside protected areas,” according to Vijayakrishnan.
There are about 101 elephant corridors that connect the elephant reserves. Some are proximate to human settlements. Elephant herds living near agricultural lands sometimes enter the farms and damage crops. In most cases, the victims of such destruction are subsistence farmers who often endure heavy financial losses. Sometimes, incidents like these even serve as a motive for wilful animal electrocution.
To avoid deaths due to live-wire tampering and the accidental encounter with high-power cables, Mohanty advocates increasing accountability, inciting behavioural change and setting up a local reward system to prevent live-wire poaching.
At last count, in 2017, India was home to more than 27,000 Asian elephants. This is 10%, or 3,000 elephants, fewer than there were at the end of the 2012 census.
But even in the face of a falling elephant population, accidental electrocutions continue unabated. On October 25, a day before the unfortunate incident in Odisha, two wild elephants lost their lives thanks to sagging live wires in the Wokha district of Nagaland. On November 16, one tusker was electrocuted in the Nambar Nadi tea estate in Assam and another in Mayurbhanj district’s Sansarasposi village. In both incidents, villagers blamed negligent power-line upkeep.
If such disregard of animal life continues, maintaining elephant populations will become difficult in the long run.
Sarah Iqbal is a freelance science writer.