The threat to Indian elephants from trains – a perspective

13th November 2013 was a black day for Indian wild-life. Around 5.40 PM in the evening, the Assam bound Jaipur-Kamakhya Kaviguru Express was passing through the Chapramari forest of Jalpaiguri district in North Bengal. As it approached a bridge over the Jaldhaka river, it collided with a large herd of elephants. Five adults and two calves were killed while another ten were badly hurt. The visuals were gruesome. One female elephant had its leg fractured and had fallen into a ravine below the tracks. The remains of one dead elephant were mangled into the bridge’s structure so badly that part of the bridge had to be disintegrated to remove the remains.

The incident had sparked off the customary outrage. It was found that the train was speeding at ~80 kph – nearly double the recommended speed for trains passing through deep forests. Unfortunately, it ended up into a blame shifting game between Indian Railways and the West Bengal government with a fruitful solution not coming forth. In the years since, elephant deaths due to train accidents have continued to happen. After the Chapramari incident, there was heightened awareness around the threat to wild animals from train tracks passing through dense forests. Speed of trains passing through dense forest areas was reduced to 25 kph in 2015. But after the number of such incidents came down, the speed was again raised to 50 kph during the day (5 am – 5 pm). Since then, elephant deaths from train accidents have gone up considerably.

YearElephant deaths from train accident

In 2010, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF & CC) had announced elephant as a “national heritage” animal. Despite the same, these wonderful animals, a custodian of our forests, have continued to die. The problem is complicated. In many places, train tracks run through dense forests with major bio-diversity. Here, especially at night, trains pose a major threat to animals. Not just elephants, even tigers, lions, leopards and deer have also died crushed by trains.

In some cases, tracks also pass through known elephant corridors – designated areas used by the pachyderms to move from one part of the forest to another. Due to the heat during the day, most animals prefer to cross over during the cooler night hours – increasing the risk of accidents. Although, trains are supposed to maintain speed limits during night journeys inside forests, often as it was the case in the Chapramari accident, it is not followed by the drivers. In 2016, in a first in India, a DFO in Kerala booked a train driver under section 9 (Hunting & the intent to hunt) of the Wildlife Protection Act (1973) for causing the death of an elephant by over-speeding.

And yet, this is probably not a solution. It is a complicated scenario. Locomotives are the lifeline of the country – ferrying more than 8 billion passengers and in excess of 1100 million tonnes of cargo every year from one corner to another. While the idealistic solution would have been to avoid train movement through dense forests/protected areas, in practicality that is difficult to do. Since majority of animal deaths from locomotive accidents take place at night, the first and foremost requirement is to ensure that all trains passing through forest areas stay within the stipulated speed limit, especially at night. This ideally should not be more than 30 kph. In today’s time with the progress made by technology, monitoring this should not be a challenge for a large institution like Indian Railways.

Secondly, there would be specific locations, like sharp bends or areas with very dense vegetation where visibility would be more compromised, increasing chances of accidents. It is therefore important to educate train drivers about such “vulnerable” spots on the route. Here, coordination between Indian Railways and state forest departments becomes critical – something that is sadly found lacking in most cases. Moreover, the forest department should keep track of movement of large herd animals like elephants, bison, deer etc. within their areas and if found near a train track, should inform the nearest railway control room promptly so that any train passing through the area is well sensitized about the same.

Greater use of technology, in the form of cameras, motion sensors etc. should be utilized to maintain track of animal movements and avoid repeat of horrific accidents like the one in 2013. Generally, elephants like most herd animals, follow a specific beat/route for their movements. The forest department should be in the know of the details of the same including frequency/periodicity of the movement. These details can and should be used to project potential movement charts and share the same with the railways at concerned locations so that prior planning can be done as much as possible to minimize accidents.

Good news is that some progress has already been made in this respect. Forest officials in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore division have introduced a unique system to reduce threats posed to elephants from locomotives. They have installed infrared sensors on trees adjacent to the train track near a known elephant corridor. Wherever a suitable tree is not found, 6-metre-long wooden poles have put up with sensors fitted on them. As soon the sensor detects presence of elephants nearby it sets off a shrill alarm that works in two ways: (i) scare off the elephants (ii) alert the forest deptt. staff who immediately mobilize to whisk the pachyderms away from the spot. An automated text message is also sent off to the concerned railway control room to inform all drivers scheduled to cross the area in the immediate future.

In some parts of Eastern Railway, devices have been erected near the railway track that emit loud, angry buzzing sounds of honeybees to scare away elephants. Forest department of Uttarakhand has started use of drones to track elephant movement and thus pre-empt possible incidents. The important thing is to replicate such features across the country wherever train tracks or even roads inside forests pose danger to elephants and other creatures. This also calls for significant monetary boost for the forest departments in states which face this type of challenge. In a positive development, the central government increased the allocation to the MoFE & CC by 5% to Rs 3100 crores in the last union budget. This included increase of Rs 5 crores for Project Elephant, a dedicated conservation effort for our jumbos. It is therefore imperative to ensure that allotted funds are used in the most efficient manner to minimize the threats posed to elephants as well as other wild animals from trains and other vehicle movement.

India has an estimated 27000-31000 wild elephants spread across four major zones in the country. These magnificent animals, like all wildlife, are threatened from habitat loss due to growing deforestation as a result of increasing human population, poaching, as well as deaths due to accidents like electrocution (India lost 461 elephants from 2009 to 2017 due to accidental electrocution) and train accidents. In a tropical forest, 30% of gigantic tree species and 40% of tall trees depend on elephants for seed dispersal. Therefore, many wildlife experts believe that without elephants, there would be no forests. They give shape to the landscape thorough their role in pollination, germination and improving the fertility of the forest soil with excreta.

Elephants are nature’s own gardeners. Losing them would be a blow from which nature will never recover. It is high time to act immediately and ensure that the future of the Indian elephant as well as wild life is safer in the coming years.

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