Killing fields: More animals falling prey to electric lines

Bad maintenance of power lines along forest areas leading to increased deaths

Dozens of elephants, tigers, sloth bears, monkeys and flamingos are being electrocuted in India’s farmlands, plantations, around human settlements near and inside forests, as they come in contact with poorly maintained power lines and electric wires.

While there are guidelines to keep animals straying out of their shrinking habitats safe, wildlife researchers said they are not properly implemented.

For instance, last week, a family of four elephants was electrocuted by a low-hanging power line in a coffee plantation in Karnataka’s Kodagu district.

A probe showed that contrary to a Karnataka HC order, the power line was less than 9m from the ground. This was not an isolated case. Data from Delhi-based NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) show 355 elephants across the country died from deliberate and accidental electrocution between 2010 and 2016 — 62 of these deaths took place last year. The list identifies flamingos as the second largest casualty of animal electrocution, at 181, followed by leopards and peacocks at 64 deaths each over six years. Researchers said animals were more at risk now, as the Centre is sanctioning development projects in protected wildlife territories.

Animals are being forced out of their natural habitat and this is leading to man-animal conflicts or death owing to man-made activities, the researchers said.

“We have observed three main types of electrocution deaths,” said Tito Joseph, the programme coordinator at WPSI.

“The first is accidental electrocution, taking place in the absence of proper maintenance of electric lines passing through protected forest areas. The second, deliberate electrocution by poachers who lay wires to kill animals. Lastly, there is the issue of man-animal conflict, where animals trespass into farms close to forest areas that farmers protect with high-voltage electric fences,” Joseph said.

Most of these fences are illegal. Last April, a year after the iconic tiger Jai went missing, his son Srinivas was found dead in the Nagbhid forest range in Maharashtra. The tiger had been electrocuted by an illegal fence set up a farmer. The probe found he buried the tiger’s body to hide the crime; he was prosecuted later.

The WPSI study identified 19 tigers, 17 sloth bears, 11 lions and animals such as Nilgais, deer, wild boars, cranes, the Great Indian Bustard and langurs have all fallen prey to these high-tension wires, that too within their own habitat, over six years.

The maximum electrocution cases in India of animals such as elephants, tigers, lions, sloth bears, deer and bird species, were seen in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kerala, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, WPSI found.

Flamingo and leopard deaths were most in Gujarat and Maharashtra. With many of these animals being endangered, wildlife experts said much larger mitigation measures rather than basic guidelines were needed to reduce the deaths. “The central and state governments need to tie up with research institutions, like an IIT, to come up with advanced technology measures, and develop transmission lines that animals can spot,” said Vidya Athreya,

In October last year, the Union environment ministry issued guidelines to avoid animal deaths from electrocution. It read: “To prevent death of animals like elephant in the forest areas due to electrocution by distribution lines, in the forest area the distribution companies shall preferably use ABC or underground cable.” But Joseph from WPSI pointed out that the rules were poorly implemented.

“All these rules are only on paper. Nobody knows what is happening in India’s dense forest areas. Barring pressure from courts, the power distribution companies are waiting for accidents to happen before taking measures such as removing lowhanging wires or even maintenance of power lines,” he said.

“As far as poaching is concerned, the forest department and electricity suppliers need to prosecute poachers for tapping or dripping electricity illegally and after establishing the cause of death of the animal, ensure the accused is prosecuted under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. But these incidents are going neglected…” Joseph said.

Officials from the ministry said after the death of the four elephants in Karnataka, electricity distribution companies have been asked to inspect lines running through forest areas.

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