Dam, canal threaten Orissa's elephants

Posted by: Aditya Chandra Panda on

River Brutanga is a tributary of the Mahanadi on its right bank in Nayagarh district in central Orissa. 


A ~500 metre earthen dam has been proposed on the river. The dam will submerge over 1500 ha adjacent to the Baissipalli Wildlife Sanctuary, which is part of the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve and Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Apart from the large reservoir, a 12 km long canal will be dug to link the Brutanga reservoir with the Kuanria reservoir, 9 kms from the town of Daspalla. 


Every summer, about 150 elephants migrate from the Mahanadi ER to forests that are part of the South Orissa (proposed) Elephant Reserve and return back to Mahanadi with the coming of the monsoons. Apart from providing the elephants with rich forage over a large area, this migration facilitates a vital genetic exchange between the central Orissa elephant population and the south Orissa elephant population. Elephants have been migrating since time immemorial along the Brutanga valley because it is the only available pass for them to cross over into south Orissa. The extremely hilly and steep terrain of this region makes it impossible for them to cross at any other point. 


This narrow but extremely vital corridor will be lost if the reservoir and canal are allowed to come up. Apart from effectively islanding the central Orissan elephants, the implementation of the Brutanga project will lead to a severe escalation in human-elephant conflict in the region, as has been observed in Athgarh, Keonjhar, Dhenkanal and Angul regions after the Rengali canal was dug. When elephants find traditional corridors blocked, they are known to get persistent in finding a way across and the disoriented, frustrated animals often get into rage, damage crops, property and human life. This continues year after year during the migration period. As of now, conflict is minimal in this region and locals have learnt to live with the brief annual presence of these elephants. 


There has been a suggestion to build overpasses on the canal, but these have failed in nearby Rengali, as they have elsewhere in India. There is no documented record of overpasses being successful alternatives to elephant corridors. In rare cases, lone bull elephants have been known to use them, but family herds with calves do not attempt to risk crossing over such a strange man made structure.


The Brutanga is a non perennial river. It shall not be wise to build a dam on it as this may cause water shortage in Baissipalli Wildlife Sanctuary. This would harmful to the local riparian forest ecology, the wildlife and even the people of villages like Padmatola. 


The most important 'sink' available to the tigers of Satkosia is a massive, compact block of forests spanning several districts in the hills of south-central Orissa. Not only do tigers from Satkosia spill over into these forests, this connectivity is also the only hope for the large ranging, low density population of tigers that still inhabits these unprotected forests. The Satkosia link might be their only escape from a genetic dead end. The tiger too, is under threat from this project.


The works of renowned elephant experts like Dr DK Lahiri Choudhury and Dr CK Sar vindicates these facts and their papers have singularly highlighted the importance of this very vital corridor.


There is no option but to shelve this project if the elephants of Orissa are to be saved. Orissa accounts for nearly 60% of the East/Central Indian elephant population and close to 10% of Orissa's elephants actually physically use this corridor. The corridor genetically links together a population of around 600 elephants- a third of the state's entire elephant population.


It is ironic that the Ministry of Environment and Forests gave an "in principle approval" to this project the very next day after declaring the elephant India's "National Heritage animal".


It is also sad to note that the Mahanadi Wildlife Division has not appropriately documented this migration. This migration would not have come to our knowledge had it not been for the field work carried out by Wild Orissa in 2002 and that by renowned elephant experts like Dr CK Sar and Dr DK Lahiri Choudhury, whose papers have stressed the importance of this corridor. We don't even know about the migration of other long ranging mega-fauna like gaur across this region. We just cannot afford to sign away this corridor.


Apart from shelving this project, the Government of Orissa must also expeditiously take the following steps to protect Orissa's elephants:


  • Declare this corridor a Critical Wildlife Habitat under provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act and Forest Rights Act.
  • Immediately notify the South Orissa Elephant Reserve and the Brahmani-Baitarani Elephant Reserve
  • Declare the Kapilas Reserved Forest a Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Shelve other proposed irrigation projects and canals, like the one in Manjhor, in and around elephant habitats


Further reference: https://wildorissa.org/brutanga.htm



An article by D.K.Lahiri Choudhury & C.K.Sar in "The Indian Forester" Vol. 128 No. 2, February, 2002 has delved upon the sensitiveness of the afore-mentioned forests.