Strong railway fencing along tracks could be the best option for India to prevent wild elephants from being run over by trains.
Other options like night patrolling are important but fatalities continue especially in North Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.
Two elephants were run over by a passenger train on Sunday (Nov 19) before dawn near Guwahati in the northeast state of Assam, home to over 5,700 elephants. Two pregnant elephants and a calf were killed by a passenger train in Assam’s Hojai district in December last year.
Over a dozen elephants die every year in India while crossing the rail tracks in search of food and water. The number is rising as new railway lines are opened for traffic and more high speed trains are introduced. India is home to about 28,000 elephants of which over 10,000 roam northeast region.
Many factors contribute to rise in elephant deaths on rail tracks.
Railway lines running through vast tracks of forests fragment elephant corridors and habitat. This forces elephants to cross tracks in search of water and food.
Locomotive drivers often fail to slow and honk horns continually while passing through forests at night. Even if they follow the speed limit of 40 km per hour, sudden movement of elephants can lead to collision.
Elephants get trapped on an elevated track without ramps when a train suddenly approaches.
Expansion of rail network, conversion of meter gauge tracks to broad gauge and introduction of high speed trains are making elephants more vulnerable to accidents.
Wildlife Trust of India, a conservation group, had given a roadmap as early as 2002 to protect elephants from killer tracks. Among the measures formulated were putting up sign boards to alert locomotive drivers and conducting night patrols. Assam successfully implemented the program in 2008 and averted over 300 train-elephant collisions.
The best success story came from the 12-km railway stretch running through Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand state. For 12 consecutive years till date, no elephant deaths have been reported from there because of joint patrolling by railway and forest officials, sign boards alerting locomotive drivers, levelling of steep slopes along tracks and clearing of vegetation that block visibility of drivers at curves.
No elephant deaths have been reported for nearly a year till date in the 80-km railway stretch between Alipurduar and Siliguri too.
“I don’t want to call it a success yet. But better coordination between forest and rail officials and protests by NGOs against official laxity have yielded positive results,” said Animesh Basu of Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation, a Siliguri-based NGO.
The Walayalar forest stretch that connects Kerala’s Palakkad town with Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore city is a death trap for elephants. To address the problem, Indian Railways, in coordination with the regional forest division, is planning to install railway fencing on ‘B’ line (track). Most elephants cross the tracks from that side.
Samuel T, manager of Palakkad Forest Division, is confident that fencing could prevent elephant deaths to a great extent.
“The project covers 11.5 km. In the first phase, 5.35 km will be covered. The report has been submitted and we are awaiting green signal from the government,” Samuel said.
Mohanraj, policy advisor to World Wildlife Fund India, says strong fencing is a permanent and cost-effective solution to prevent elephant deaths on tracks.
“A crawling train is no guarantee for an elephant’s safety. Passengers’ valuable time is wasted that way. Let there be strong fencing along tracks to keep elephants at bay,” he said.
“Take the Madukkarai stretch after Walayar. Elephants cross from the southern side to raid crops. If fences are installed on that side, their deaths can be prevented. Also, if water is provided for them on the southern side, elephants will not cross the tracks,” he said.
Ramps have been laid on either side of track B in the Madukkarai-Walayar section to help elephants climb and descend the tracks from a height. This model could be followed elsewhere.