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 likely 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 elephant which are highly dependent on bamboo for forage. The amendments to the rules of the FRA as well as classification of bamboo as MFP may spell a disaster.
According to last census, there are 1,862 elephants in the state. Since 2001, at least 116 elephants have been electrocuted, 46 of which were deliberate electrocutions while 70 were accidental. In the last one week, at least six elephants have died, five of them due to electrocution. This year, 11 electrocution deaths have been reported.
It is the deliberate electrocutions which are indicators of a growing intolerance of humans towards the jumbos and the conflict scenario is expected to get worse with increasing interference in the forests post-FRA implementation.
A major proportion of the bamboo exists outside the protected areas. With rights of bamboo being given to the tribals for harvest and trade, experts believe that it will cause massive depletion of forests across Odisha. “Tiger and elephant habitats and corridors, many of which are not even documented, are going to face the most damage, fragmenting 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 9 per cent of the country’s bamboo forest cover and 7 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 will 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 official sources pointed out.