Multiple signs of poaching show all is not well in Odisha’s reserves

ByDebabrata Mohanty, Bhubaneswar
Dec 21, 2022 08:07 AM IST

Thus far in 2022, Odisha has seen 12 cases where forest department personnel have allegedly been involved in hiding instances of elephant poaching by burning or burying the carcasses.

“There is something going wrong terribly,” chief justice of the Orissa high court, justice S Muralidhar, said on December 13 while hearing a case on wildlife protection days after a poached elephants carcass was burnt by forest department officials in Similipal, one of the largest tiger reserves in the state.

The tiger hide found in Similipal reserve. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
The tiger hide found in Similipal reserve. (HT Photo)

There is.

Thus far in 2022, the state has seen 12 cases where forest department personnel have allegedly been involved in hiding instances of elephant poaching by burning or burying the carcasses. In almost every case, action against the erring officials was initiated on directions of the Orissa high court. There also appears to be a spurt in poaching of big cats such as tigers and leopards in the state, government data shows.

“This has been a very bad year for elephants in Odisha... perhaps the worst year. There is something going wrong terribly. We are reacting to a situation all the time, but not preventing anything from happening,” remarked justice Muralidhar while conducting an emergency hearing on a PIL filed by a wildlife activist Gita Rout, seeking amendment to the Wildlife (Protection Act), 1972 on the lines of the Wildlife (Protection) (Assam Amendment) Act 2009 to add more teeth to wildlife crime control efforts.

The amendment brought in by Assam government increased jail term for wildlife crimes to a minimum of seven years, which can be extended to 10 years. For second or subsequent offences, the term of imprisonment would not be less than 10 years and may extend for life.

Rout’s PIL was filed after a 25-year-old tusker was found dead with gunshot wounds in Athagarh forest division of Cuttack district in July. In June, in the same forest division, bones and carcasses of five elephants were found buried by the Odisha Police’s special task force, revealing a major cover-up to hide elephant deaths by poaching.

Alarmed by the findings, the Orissa high court in August constituted a joint task force comprising members of the forest department, Odisha police, and wildlife activists to recommend suitable deterrents for elephant poaching. Meanwhile, the Union environment ministry on June 16 shot off a letter to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife), the top wildlife official in the state, on the action taken by the state forest department on the elephant poaching case in Athagarh forest division and in other such cases in the state in recent times.

It was only after the intervention of the high court that nine forest department officials, including two rangers, were arrested in June and July on the charge of suppressing information on poaching. And 35 poachers were separately arrested by the special task force of Odisha police. “All the arrested forest officials were suspended, but a few of them were later reinstated,” said assistant conservator of forests Ghanashyam Muduli.

Six months after the Athagarh incident, something similar happened in Similipal on December 7. After the high court’s comments on December 13, the state government arrested and suspended the three forest officials who burnt the carcass of the tusker in the core area of the Similipal Tiger Reserve.

“Preventive methods have obviously failed. Please give us some idea about the preventive measures that can stop elephant killings. Please don’t give us bureaucratic response,” the judges snapped when chief conservator of forests (wildlife) Manoj Nair spoke about the Similipal hush-up by the staff and the steps taken by the department to prevent recurrence of such incidents in the future.

Investigations revealed that when the range in-charge of Jenabil range, a forester, and a forest guard, found the dead elephant in the Similipal tiger reserve on December 7 with its tusk sawn off and head hacked, they decided to burn the carcass. As burning the carcass of a sub-adult tusker requires at least two truckloads of timber, other forest officials were drafted into the effort. Four days after the arrest of the three, Turram Purti, a 20-year-old tribal protection assistant, who recorded the incident on his mobile phone and threatened to expose the officials, died by suicide following threats of implicating him in a false case. “My son died solely because of the ranger who threatened him. He had to pay a price for speaking the truth,” said Purti’s father.

The Similipal elephant incident brought back memories of April 2010 when field staff in the Similipal reserve allegedly buried and burnt carcasses of 14 elephants, seven of which were killed. Though an independent inquiry committee of the National Tiger Conservation Authority held the field staff responsible for burning of the carcasses to destroy evidence, the errant staff were let go. On December 14, a special task force of Odisha police seized the hide of a Royal Bengal Tiger from a gang of poachers and arrested two people from Similipal, which had over 100 tigers a decade ago. The interrogation of the poachers revealed that the tiger was from the reserve.

The 2018 census by NTCA pegged the tiger numbers in Similipal at 16.


Odisha, one of the top five priority landscapes for elephants in the country, is home to a large population of breeding elephants due to its abundant flora. The last elephant census conducted in Odisha in 2017 showed that the state had 1,976 elephants, including 344 adult males. But with forests shrinking on account of urbanisation and mineral exploration, elephants have been restricted to a smaller geographical area making it easier for poachers to target them. Since the last census, Odisha has lost over 110 male elephants over the age of 15, of which 20% were poached.

The number does not include the 11 poaching cases in Athagarh, Angul, Sambalpur and Satkosia forest divisions. The special task force of Odisha police, which separately looks into illegal wildlife trade, has seized 26 elephant tusks since January 2021.

“Poaching is now the biggest threat to elephants in Odisha. Lax patrolling and lack of convictions in the last two decades has boosted the morale of the poachers. If immediate measures are not undertaken, the entire population of elephants will be wiped out,” said wildlife conservationist Biswajit Mohanty.

Apart from elephants, poachers have killed at least 12 leopards since April 2020. The STF, the forest department, and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau seized 37 leopard skins during the same period, indicating that Odisha is also an important transit state for wildlife body parts. “In many cases, the poachers burnt the carcasses after getting the hide. In poaching cases of tigers and leopards, the mismatch between number of leopard or tiger hides seized and the discovery of carcasses by forest staff will always be there,” said a senior official of STF, asking not to be named. In one of the biggest seizures of leopard skins, the Odisha and Chhattisgarh forest department and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau seized eight leopard skins in Kalahandi district in July this year.

No poaching of tigers was reported in past two years till a tiger skin was seized from the buffer zone of Similipal Tiger Reserve on December 14. The officials said possible poaching was said to be the reason for the failure of the country’s first interstate tiger relocation programme in Satkosia tiger reserve in June 2018. Mahabir, a three-year-old male tiger brought from Kanha National Park to Satkosia tiger reserve, died after its neck was cut in a trap meant for wild boar or deer.

In March 2021, the interstate relocation exercise for tigers came to a stop after Sundari, a tigress from Madhya Pradesh was sent back from Satkosia to Kanha National Park. Sundari was shifted to a special enclosure in Satkosia tiger reserve after she killed a 45-year-old woman and a 65-year-old man living inside the reserve in September 2018, triggering violence by locals who burnt the forest department’s boats and beat house.

In case of Indian Pangolins, prized by the Chinese for their unproven medicinal properties, the forest department and STF of Odisha police in last two years have seized over 52kg of Pangolin scales that were being exported. In July 2021, a joint team of Odisha forest and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of Jabalpur confiscated 14.2kg pangolin scales in Dhenkanal district from two people in one of the biggest-ever seizures of pangolin scales in Odisha.

Odisha forest minister Pradip Amat said that as part of a campaign to prevent poaching of elephants, 343 anti-poaching squads comprising 1,715 personnel have been deployed in strategic places. Drones and watch towers are being used to keep a strict vigil on the elephant habitats, their movements and on the movement of poachers, he added.

State Principal Chief Conservator of Forests(wildlife) SK Popli said the state forest department will also gather DNA from leopards. “The forest areas where leopards are spotted will be identified as part of the exercise. Samples of their faeces and pug marks will be recorded, which will then be sent for DNA profiling. It will help in finding the origin in case of deaths of the leopards, after the skin and other organs from poachers and traders are seized,” he explained. “We are also using elephant trackers to keep a watch on elephants apart from regular forest staff.”


Wildlife experts said poaching would be difficult to control as long as forest officials are involved in cover-ups. They added that low conviction rate for wildlife crimes was helping poachers.

“The finding of an elephant carcass killed for its tusks entails a host of work for the officials on the ground. The staff have to register a case, investigate and arrest the poachers. They also have to inform the higher-ups. They would also have to face official action over dereliction of duty. As the whole process is very tedious, the staff take the easy way out and conceals the deaths by burning, burying or throwing the carcass in water,” said Suvendu Mallik, a wildlife activist.

Wildlife activists said that poachers are running amok as the forest department has failed to take stringent action or achieve a single conviction in wildlife crime cases over the past two decades. “Getting evidence, filing charge sheets on time and showing up in the court is tough work for the forest staff who prefer to do plantation drives and ecotourism activities. So it’s natural that conviction rates are abysmal,” added Mohanty.

Though there is a seven-year imprisonment term for killing any elephant as it is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, not a single poacher or ivory trader has been convicted for the last 20 years, according to statistics of the forest department. In the case of seizure of leopard skin seizure by STF in Baripada forest division in January, the two accused were acquitted by the court due to shoddy investigation by the forest department.

Unwilling to remain silent to the killings of elephants in the state, the high court last week asked the state government to be more proactive in dealing with poachers. “We want action on ground now,” justice Muralidhar said. “This has gone on for long. It seems we are helpless bystanders just watching his happen. We just cannot afford this!”

Get Latest India Newsalong with Latest Newsand Top Headlinesfrom India and around the world.

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, June 06, 2023
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals