On 11 February 2008, a forest reserve in Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) is basking in the silent tranquility of an early morning as a herd of three Asiatic elephants slowly make their way to a nearby crop field. The herd is led by an adult male followed by a junior elephant aged about six years old and a pregnant female just about keeping up with the pace. Along the way, the herd had to cross the railway tracks that run through the reserve unnoticeable until the sounds of an engine chug by to announce the coming trains. The two male elephants effortlessly cross the track but then turn back to help save the pregnant female who upon noticing an approaching train becomes terrified and is unable to move. In a moment, life comes to an end as all three elephants meet a tragic end. This was not the first such accident to end the life of these majestic animals but one of many being reported across the country.
The number of elephant deaths between 1987 and 2001 due to speeding trains is noted at 150 and just about 90% of these deaths have taken place in the state of Assam, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. The life of any living thing has a value and must not be underestimated. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India took up the matter and wrote to Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav the Railways Minster at that point of time to take action to protect elephants. PETA had also filed a Right to Information request with the Ministry of Railways to find out about the actions being taken to address the issue. But what makes this tragedy even more ironic is that the elephant is the mascot of the Indian Railways.
Last month, on 23 September 2010, seven ill-fated elephants including three baby elephants were killed by a speeding goods train on a railway track in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. The Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests (independent charge) Mr. Jairam Ramesh said: “This is not the first time such a mishap has taken place, although the scale with which it has taken place now is unprecedented, particularly in the North-East Frontier Railway.” The unfortunate incident comes at a time when a task force set up earlier in the year has sent a worrying report to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in India stating that the higher frequency of trains and the increased speed in the elephant corridors are leading to tragic accidents. The core problem lies in the age old human-wildlife conflict. The herds of elephants led by its matriarch follow century old traditional migration routes in search of food and water.
However, the transportation needs of a growing population have led the railways to expand its networks into protected forest areas across the country with many of the railway lines usually more than 100 years old being built through elephant corridors. As a result, such incidents of elephant-train collisions have become a common phenomenon which evokes anguish and pain but not enough initiatives to save other elephants from a similar fate. Although it may be unfeasible to simply relocate these old railway lines, we could explore effective measures such as installation of signage and awareness campaigns among train drivers and railway staffs to avoid such tragic accidents to a great extent. At the same time new railway lines should be discouraged from being built in protected areas, more particularly elephant corridors. A good example is the case of the South-Western Railways that had been denied permission in 2006 to build a wide gauge railway line through the Nilgiris Eastern Ghat Elephant Reserve, part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and the proposed Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary.
Recently, the Ministry of Environment and Forests in India has taken the decision to declare the elephant as our national heritage animal. Therefore, it is all the more important that the initiative being taken to create a national Conservation Authority is done at the earliest to help facilitate the implementation of the recommendations made by the Elephant Task Force to protect designated elephant corridors. The efforts of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) have successfully demonstrated that if appropriate steps are taken, death of wild animals in railway accidents, in particular Asian elephants can be prevented. As Dr Anil Kumar Singh, Head of Conflict Mitigation Division of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) put it aptly: “The threat is severe but it is not something that cannot be solved. It needs a joint approach from various stakeholders including NGOs, Forest Department and the Railways.”
The WTI along with International Fund for Animal Welfare (WTI-IFAW) began the WTI's National Train Hits Project with the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand in 2002. The park is home to more than 400 elephants and an 18km stretch of railway track passing through the elephant corridors. During 1987 and 2002, more than 20 elephants had succumbed to train accidents. However, with the concerted efforts of the WTI-IFAW in association with the Uttarakhand Forest Department and Northern Frontier Railways any further elephant deaths due to train accidents were prevented since 2002. This was largely due to various measures taken to effectively address the problem including joint patrolling to monitor movement of elephant herds near the track, levelling of steep embankments adjoining the track to prevent trapping of elephants between them and improving visibility of train drivers by removing thick vegetation in blind turns. As Dr Singh, points out: “There are many reasons for these accidents. Even in Rajaji, we found so many factors into play. And obviously every region is different and will have to be carefully studied to identify causes of these accidents to devise effective mitigation measures.”
In the last few years, the population of Asian elephants has been diminishing rapidly with Habitat loss, human encroachment and a booming trade in elephant ivory. The endangerments to these majestic elephants in India are further burdened by railways lines in elephant habitat areas. In a country, where Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity is widely revered, elephants like any living being needs to be respected and protected.
Image (c) Wildlife Trust of India
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