If the alarming rate of elephant deaths in the State has shocked the Odisha Government, it must brace for more. As the Government advocates and celebrates the Forest Rights Act (FRA), it is this legislation which is going to fell more elephants in Odisha, for their staple fodder - bamboo - is being given away to the tribals as Minor Forest Produce (MFP) leading to a disastrous man-animal conflict scenario.
Odisha will feel the heat of FRA more than others since it is home to over 60 per cent of Central and East India’s elephants who are highly dependent on bamboo for forage and bamboo occurs widely across State’s forests. The amendments to the rules of the FRA as well as classification of bamboo as MFP will spell a disaster.
A major proportion of the bamboo exist outside the protected areas. With rights of bamboo being given to the tribals for harvest and trade, pundits believe that it will cause massive depletion of forests across Odisha which are densely populated by tribals and other forest dwellers.
“It will also irrevocably intensify the already high human-elephant conflict in the State by denying elephants their chief cover and forage. Tiger and elephant habitats and corridors, many of which are not even documented, are going to face the most damaging and fragmenting move in the state’s vast, expansive tiger and elephant landscapes,” said a wildlife expert.
The total bamboo-bearing area in the country is 13.96 million hectare, which is around a fifth of the country’s forest area. Odisha, for its part, accounts for nine per cent of the country’s bamboo forest cover and seven per cent of the total growing stock. Most of the bamboo cover supports good wildlife and in many parts, where primary forests have been destroyed, secondary growth of bamboo provides the green cover. In such habitats, the elephants rely heavily on bamboo as their principal source of food.
It being a coppice-regenerating plant, harvest of standing bamboo is highly inadvisable and experts believe this will lead to irreversible loss to bamboo forests. “The recent amendments to FRA can be interpreted as unlimited extraction of MFP as there is no definition limiting the term ‘sustenance’ or ‘surplus’, nor any limiting the mode of transport and hence, amount of harvest will have serious implications, especially with bamboo now being counted as MFP,” said a Forest Department official.
The amendments require the State to collect the produce and stipulate a minimum support price (MSP) for purchase from tribals. This is likely to create an artificial market even for perishable produce and increase the extraction and pressure on forests. “With bamboo forests under pressure, the jumbos will turn to nearby habitation for fodder and face resistance triggering an unprecedented man-animal conflict scenario,” the sources pointed out.
Since FRA amendment proposes unrestricted entry and dispensing away with transit passes, it will also mean unrestricted, unchecked and unregulated exploitation of bamboo by forest dwellers. Bamboo extraction in elephant habitat will kick-off a huge human-elephant conflict, also because bamboo collection is a very disturbing activity and damaging to entire ecosystems.
A total of 147 elephants have died since 2005, of which 68 were electrocuted and six died in train accidents. There are 1,862 elephants in the State.