Elephants in Assam apparently have a reason to get killed on railway tracks or risk death by raiding crop fields - shrinking forests.
The death of an elephant - the eighth this year - in Karbi Anglong district last Friday showed why Assam's killer tracks claim most jumbos (37 per cent of all train-hit cases in India). It also put the spotlight on the state's poor performance vis-à-vis checking forest cover loss.
According to the 'Indian State of Forest Report 2009' by Forest Research Institute (FSI), India's forest cover (2007 assessment) was 690,899 sq km.
This translates into 21.02 per cent of India's geographical area, well below the desired 33 per cent mark.
The change in forest cover with respect to revised assessment for 2005 was 728 sq km. Expansion of forests in Mizoram (640 sq km), Manipur (328 sq km) and Jharkhand (172 sq km) boosted the figure that doesn't give a clear picture of deforestation in India.
Among the eight northeastern states - India's green hope - Nagaland lost 201 sq km although 81.21 per cent of its geographical area is under forest cover. Arunachal Pradesh with 119 sq km and Tripura with 100 sq km were the other major losers followed by Assam with 66 sq km.
"Between 2000-2009, Assam has lost 374.25 hectares in five national parks, 18 wildlife sanctuaries and 312 reserved forests," said Sanjay Sonowal of green group Assam Van Suraksha Dal. "Compared to 27,826 sq km in 2003, the state's forest cover was 26,748 sq km, a loss of 1,078 sq km in two years."
Sonowal added Assam is also the leader where encroachment of forests is concerned. Assam Forest Department data for 2005 said 355,980.144 hectares of the state's forests were under encroachment. "This has now increased to 485,678 sq km, and this shows initiatives by forest officials are coming a cropper."
Assam Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain insisted the situation isn't as bad as it is made out to be. "Our performance in forest management has improved commendably," he said.
The one-horned rhino felt the impact of encroachment in 70 sq km Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary (Nagaon district) in 1985-86. The last of the animal was killed during that fiscal.
Elsewhere, particularly the Northern Bank Landscape covering the foothills Eastern Himalayas from the Assam-West Bengal border eastward, elephants are feeling the heat.
"At least 10 elephants and 30 humans are killed every year in increasing cases of human-elephant conflicts," Nandita Hazarika of the Assam Haathi Project (AHP) told Hindustan Times. "The elephants are poisoned, shot with country-made guns or electrocuted with live wires."