Wildlife conservationists demand probe into death of 18 elephants in Odisha

In Odisha, officials have blamed anthrax for the deaths of 20 elephants between April 2017 and June 2020
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Updated on Aug 19, 2020 04:27 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar | By Debabrata Mohanty

Wildlife conservationists have demanded an investigation into the deaths of 18 elephants in Odisha over the last two years, citing information obtained under the Right To Information (RTI) that suggests they may not have died of anthrax as previously thought.

Biswajit Mohanty, a wildlife conservationist who filed an RTI application with Phulnakhara’s Animal Disease Research Institute (ADRI), said the information revealed that only two of the tissue samples of the 20 tested positive for the bacterial disease. ADRI found that the deaths of only two elephants in the Hadagada forest range of Keonjhar forest division in May 2018 could be ascribed to anthrax.

Mohanty said by citing anthrax as the cause, officials eliminated the need to carry out proper autopsies and investigation for any other cause of death. “The bodies were either cremated or deep burials were carried out on the basis of suspicion of anthrax without even waiting for a preliminary test report,” Mohanty said anthrax has become a convenient reason to cover up foul play or unnatural causes of deaths.

Mohanty has now lodged a complaint with Odisha’s chief wildlife warden.

Anthrax is an infectious zoonotic disease caused by Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Cattle, sheep, goats, horses, mules, and elephants can contract the disease when they come in contact with contaminated soil, plants, or water. The disease can also be transmitted from animals to humans.

In Odisha, officials have blamed anthrax for the deaths of 20 elephants between April 2017 and June 2020. They include a female elephant, whose carcass was found in Gayalmunda forest in Keonjhar district in 2019.

Mohanty wondered how could the state wildlife officials have missed the mysterious absence of anthrax infections among other wildlife species as well as cattle in the area while elephants continued to die. “Unless there is proper and truthful reporting of cause of deaths of elephants, the protection of our national heritage animal in Odisha is seriously imperiled.”

Mohanty said elephant carcasses have been cremated or buried after their deaths of suspected anthrax over the last 10 months as well in Rairakhol, Keonjhra, and Angul forest divisions. Their tissue samples were neither sent to ADRI nor to the veterinary college of Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology, he added.

In January, the Union environment ministry revised its standard operating procedures (SOP) on anthrax deaths of wild elephants after a four-year-old elephant was suspected to have died of the disease in Sambalpur district.

As per the SOP, the chief wildlife warden has been vested with the overall authority of investigation such deaths under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The SOP had laid down rules for the constitution of a team to oversee the assessment and disposal of elephant carcasses suspected to be infected with anthrax.

Wildlife activist Aditya Panda said the RTI documents have raised questions on the wildlife authorities’ attempts of attributing most elephant deaths to anthrax without going through the proper procedure. “It needs to be investigated how these elephants had died. The government owes everyone a clarification,” he said.

Chief wildlife warden, HS Upadhyay, said anthrax has very obvious symptoms. “And in all cases, it is certified by local veterinary surgeons. So, the accusation of misreporting is incorrect.”

In Odisha, the elephant mortality rate is rising alarmingly. The average deaths annually, which were 33 from 1990 to 2000, increased to 46 from 2000 to 2010. Since 2010, the average has been 78.

As many as 463 elephant deaths were recorded from 2000 to 2010. The number grew sharply to 784 from 2010 to 2020. Of the 784 deaths in the last 10 years, 281 (36%) elephants died of unnatural causes. In 160 (20%) cases, the causes of death could not be ascertained primarily because their bodies were highly decomposed.

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