The lesser-known plight of endangered Asian elephants is gradually unravelling.
Out-shadowed by their African cousins, the Asian elephant’s fate has been shielded from widespread attention, despite only five percent of their habitat remaining and their numbers dwindling to a measly 10 percent of the population of African elephants.
In three generations, 50 percent of the Asian elephant population has been lost. And now, electrocutions can be added to the exhaustive list of threats contributing to the demise of the Asian elephant.
Unprecedented deforestation rates wreck forest habitats, box elephants into confined spaces, and force them to encroach upon human territory for food and water.
Coupling this with the illegal trade of their tusks, meat and even their skin, Asia is a treacherous place for an elephant.
India has seen greatest loss from electrocution of these beautiful behemoths…
In September 2015, Kaziranga national park lost a large tusker to sagging power lines; September 2o17, two elephants fell victim to electrocution inside Satkosia Tiger Reserve; October 2018, drooping live wires in Nagaland killed two wandering elephants; October 2018, a group of 13 wild elephants passing through a paddy field in Orissa came in contact with the power line, seven of them were tragically killed - the biggest casualty of elephants in a single incident.
Most recently, in November 2018, a tusker lost his life in the Nambar Nadi tea estate, and another tusker was killed in Sansarasposi village.
These are a small part of a gathering chorus of incidents in which elephants are massacred at the hand of human negligence.
At last count in 2017, 27,000 wild Asian elephants roamed India; a 10 percent decline from the 2012 census.
High-power, low-hanging cables that barbarically dissect India’s forests and wildlife corridors played a notable part in this decline.
11KV lines have been seen as low as 4ft from the ground and can instantly wipe out these 11ft tall gentle giants.
Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of the Wildlife Society of Orissa, India, said: “Electrocutions have become the second leading cause of unnatural elephant deaths in Odisha.”
A shocking 461 elephant electrocutions occurred between 2009 and 2017, of which over a hundred deaths occurred in Odisha.
Karnataka is another Indian state where electrocutions have overtaken poaching as a leading cause of unnatural death among elephants, with 30 deaths counted in 18 months from 2015.
These figures do not solely represent unsuspecting wandering elephants falling victim to sagging power lines alone.
Rather, poachers have harnessed this force by setting up live wire poaching traps - electrocution tripwires - to kill elephants.
Vengeful villagers, whose crops had been destroyed by the pachyderms, have deliberately redirected live wires to fall in the paths of sauntering herds.
It has been estimated that half of all elephant electrocutions are deliberate.
To make matters worse, electrocution often kills in its plenty. Whole herds can be wiped out simply because of their intricate social behaviour patterns.
Encountering a threat, an elephant will alert the group with a distinct distress call, initiating a family huddle in the hope to protect them from any impending danger. Instead, the entire dynasty become fatalities of one single hanging powerline.
Authorities are aware, but action is not being taken. Wildlife conservation and energy department officials are at odds.
The energy officials permit the low hanging lines, shrugging off the responsibility that they are the root cause of elephant electrocution. Wildlife conservation teams are powerless.
Despite suggesting several remedies, the pleas are lost in the deluge of other social, political and economic issues that shroud the forests. Ample letters have been written to Chamundeshwari Electricity Supply Corporation officials in the last two years over the severity of the issue, but no action has been taken.
The Forest Department of Dhenkanal has been notified repeatedly about 200 spots in the forest that are endangering elephants with sagging power lines. Again, to no avail.
On paper, there are stringent laws protecting India’s heritage animal. Under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, persecuting an elephant carries a prison sentence up to seven years. But in reality, the system is defective. It's criminal neglect.
These deaths could be easily prevented. Improved regulations for maintaining cables is a must.
Addressing low hanging wires, insulating live wires and investing in stronger, taller poles is required. Shankar Raman, from the National Board for Wildlife, recommends achievable guidelines for a minimum of “6.6 metres above ground on level terrain and minimum 9.1 metres above ground on steeper terrain.”
Monumental pressure from the public needs to be imposed on energy companies.
Sagging wires have played a pivotal role in the Asian elephant’s demise. With their numbers frighteningly low, every individual counts.
If electrocution persists unabated, deliberate or accidental, we will have to say goodbye to these majestic creatures.
Elephant Family are working to stop the wanton slaughter of these animals.
Through fundraising for various projects in India, such as ‘Human-Elephant Conflict Management’ in the Karbi foothills, local communities are becoming more sensitised to these issues and the prevalence of subsequent violent retaliations against intruding herds is being reduced.
What’s more, the wildlife protection society of India and the wildlife society of Orissa are working with Elephant Family to invest in a database of all low-hanging wires across the state of Orissa so that they can then be rectified.
If you wish to help, please donate here.
Sophie Pierce is a creative content producer at Elephant Family. She also has her own website and Instagram @conservation.soph where she regularly likes to post about Rewilding or African wildlife.