A first-of-its-kind virtual weekend festival, The Forgotten Elephants of Odisha, is scheduled to take place on November 7th and 8th. The enlightening and entertaining event, featuring guest of honor Dr. Jane Goodall, features film screenings, live music, a silent auction, and much more; all to raise awareness and funds to protect the remaining 2,000 Asian elephants of Odisha, India.
WAN talked with noted wildlife filmmaker and the Founder of Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES), Sangita Iyer, about the plight of the elephants of Odisha, and the impactful ways they will use the funds raised from the event to save them.
Iyer also shared how the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the event morphing from what was a one-time screening of the acclaimed documentary Gods In Shackles, which she produced and directed, into a two-day festival that people from around the world can now experience virtually.
“This whole event is because the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a curve ball, not only to people, but the elephants of Odisha,” Iyer, who is also a National Geographic Explorer, a broadcast journalist, and a biologist, told WAN. “The increased anxiety and economic pressure resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has been like tossing a match on tinder, making an already dire situation for the elephants even more perilous.”
Tragically, an estimated 60 elephants across India have recently been killed by electrocution, poisoning, or poaching for the illicit ivory trade. More than 20 of the elephants that were killed during the pandemic were in Odisha, which Iyer describes as “a graveyard for elephants.”
“Electrocution has been an issue for over a decade, but the past three years it has intensified. Now, even more because of COVID-19,” shared Iyer, explaining that the poor elephants are homeless and hungry due to human encroachment on their natural habitat.
Sadly, an estimated 78% of wildlife habitat in Odisha has been decimated, leaving the elephants with nowhere to hide, starving, and in search of food. Already threatened due to the pandemic, the elephants are now exposed even more to the brutalities of human-animal conflict, as locals, many whom are farmers, remain at home and afraid that they will lose their livelihoods.
“People have encroached onto their sacred land and exploited forest resources. Additionally, climate change, exacerbated by human actions is further deteriorating the forest ecosystems, leaving these elephants with nothing inside the forests. Homeless and starved, these elephants venture into human dwellings and croplands for food, where they are getting electrocuted, poisoned, and hunted down,” explained Iyer. “Male elephants and pregnant females have been the victims of an endless COVID lockdown, as people’s lives have been ravaged and they are spilling over their anger and hatred onto the innocent elephants.”
To understand the severity of the problem, Iyer shared some staggering statistics with WAN, including that 1.38 billion people currently live in India. In Odisha alone, there are approximately 45 million people, many living along the forest fringes and corridors that elephants have established over thousands of years. That is why the elephants and humans in Odisha remain in a constant and often-times life-or-death struggle for limited resources.
It is unfathomable. India is three times smaller than the United States yet has three times as many people.
Realizing that more needs to be done to help the elephants in Odisha, Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES) partnered with the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) to put an end to this travesty.
VFAES and WPSI will work with a team of local conservationists to steer knowledge-driven elephant conservation actions to some of the most vulnerable regions of the state. Over the long term, Iyer and her team aim to secure a future for Odisha’s forgotten elephants, by promoting a harmonious and respectful human elephant co-existence.
Funds raised by the November 7th and 8th virtual event will be used to help save 2,000 wild elephants in Odisha, by hiring native people to monitor and implement numerous strategies including:
Preventing electrocution by fixing sagging wires and removing wire traps, many which are on farms illegally.
Monitoring important corridors for elephants to travel as they are migratory animals.
Recruiting rangers to monitor the area, for poaching, and to alleviate more senseless deaths of elephants.
Raising awareness and educating locals, including school children, about the plight of the elephants in Odisha.