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Similipal National Park a poacher’s paradise? Experts note a rise in incidents

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On January 22, carcass of a male elephant, whose population is already on a decline, was found 

Similipal National Park in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district has turned out to be the hunting ground for animal poachers over the last few years. 

Similipal witnessed 11 elephant deaths since 2019 including four in 2021-22, according to the data by the forest and environment department of the eastern state, presented by minister Pradip Kumar Amat during the budget session of the Assembly July 7, 2022. Some of them were linked with poaching. 

Most recently, the carcass of a male elephant was found in the Talabandha wildlife range on January 22, 2023. Forest officials suspect that the animal might have been killed by poachers for ivory as its tusks were missing. 

The animal is believed to be part of a herd seen roaming the area recently. Locals found the carcass and informed the forest officials. A team of forest officials rushed to the spot and sent the carcass for an autopsy. They buried the body following a post mortem.

“Search operations have been launched for the poacher. Stern action will be taken against those found guilty,” said Sai Kiran, the deputy director of Similipal Tiger Reserve. 

Locals have accused the forest department of neglect and blamed the department for the death of the elephant.

The Special Task Force of Odisha Crime Branch police have seized around 24 tusks since 2020 in the state. 

Similipal has turned out to be the haven for hunters and poachers as the region has witnessed several killings of elephants, tigers and leopards, said Biswajit Mohanty, the secretary of Wildlife Society of Orissa.

A leopard cat was found dead at Similipal on January 23, 2023. 

The Odisha government on December 11, 2022 suspended three officials of the Similipal Tiger Reserve over allegations that they burnt the carcass of an elephant and threw off the remnants in a river on December 8, 2022.

On September 20, 2021, forest officials seized a leopard skin and arrested two suspected poachers from a hotel in Baripada town near the Similipal Tiger Reserve. 

The Special Task Force arrested a suspected wildlife trader on December 14, 2022 in the buffer area of Similipal Tiger Reserve with a Royal Bengal Tiger skin, he added. “Police also arrested three persons and seized a leopard hide along with Rs 1.27 lakh cash on January 17, 2023 during a raid at Bholagadia village in Mayurbhanj’s Khunta  village near the tiger reserve.”

The last elephant census of 2017 in the state recorded 344 males out of a total of 1,976, the expert added. But only a few of them, maybe less than 150, are adult breeding elephants above the age of 20, he shared, adding:

About 20 adult breeding male elephants die each year, mostly to unnatural causes like poaching and electrocution. The dwindling breeding male population and the isolated populations due to fragmented forests is weakening the gene pool due to mating among immature individuals and inbreeding.

Although the state forest department has been making tall claims of keeping tabs on poaching, the poaching of a tusker and seizure of many tusks since the last two years presents a different picture, said Jayakrushna Panigrahi, the secretary of Odisha Environmental Society.

Elephants are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, he added. “The rise in poaching cases also indicates that demand for tusks in the international illegal trade market has gone up.”

A total of 406 elephants have died in Odisha since 2016-17 through August 2021, according to the state’s forest, environment and climate change minister, Bikram Keshari Arukha, in the Odisha Assembly December 7, 2021.  

As many as 93 elephants died in Odisha in 2018-19, 82 in 2019-20, 77 in 2020-21 and 30 in 2021 till August 31. As per the data, 11 were killed by poachers, 54 died of electrocution, 14 died after being hit by trains, four in road accidents and 90 lost their lives due to unknown reasons. 

The minister, however, did not specify the exact reasons behind the death of the remaining 233 elephants. 

There  is a link between poaching and trading of elephant tusks, tiger skins and leopard skins since these fetch a huge price in the international market despite the global ban, added Panigrahi. 

While tiger population has gone up in most Indian states, in Odisha it has come down or remained static, the expert noted. “In 2004, the state had recorded 192 tigers, which came down to 28 in 2014. Even after spending crores of rupees on tiger conservation during the last four years, the numbers continued to stagnant at 28 in the 2018 Census.”


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