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Not caring enough for our Heritage Animal

The Pioneer
New Delhi
10 Dec 2016

The protection of elephants from train accidents across the country needs measures that will cost money. But the safety of India`s National Heritage Animal more than warrants the expenditure required

The recent death of three elephants — including two that were pregnant-— in an accident involving the Kanyakumari-Dibrugarh Vivek Express in Assam’s Nagaon district, warrants serious concern. This is the second time this year that elephants have been killed in train accidents in Assam, the earlier one being when two of them were mowed down by the Dibrugarh-bound Rajdhani Express in September. Including those in the instances above, 17 elephants have died in train accidents — two in Tamil Nadu in June, three in West Bengal in August, three in Kerala in July and November, two in Jharkhand in September, one in Uttarakhand in October — in the last six months of this year.

According to the report of the Elephant Task Force, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, submitted on August 31, 2010, train accidents had taken a heavy toll of elephant lives, killing as many as 150 of these behemoths since 1987. Thirty-six per cent of these occurred in Assam, 26, 14 and 10 in the cases of West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand respectively. Tamil Nadu accounted for six per cent, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala three each, and Odisha two.

Appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Task Force further stated in its report, “The physical presence of the roads and railway lines in the habitat creates new habitat edges, alters the hydrological dynamics and creates a barrier to the movement of elephants and other animals, leads to habitat fragmentation and loss, apart from death due to train and vehicular hits.” It added, “Rail and an increase in road traffic operates in a synergetic way across several landscapes and causes not only an overall loss and isolation of wildlife habitat, but also splits up the landscape in a literal sense. Various developmental activities also come up on either side of the highways and railroads thereby further fragmenting the habitat and increasing biotic pressures.”

The Elephant Task Force’s report has recommended several measures to prevent road and rail accidents. Besides those related to site-specific short- and long-term mitigation, others include the announcement of the principles of forest area, railway track and highway management, the grant of mining licences and rules governing the drawing and maintenance of power cables through forest areas. These are comprehensive but will require time and funds.

Implementation, however, has been half-hearted, with Indian Railways being particularly insensitive to the task of protecting elephant corridors cutting across tracks. Consider the case of accident involving the Chennai-bound Coromondal Express, which hit a herd of elephants in Odisha’s Ganjam district on December 30, 2012. It was, according to Bijoy Kumar Hota, Khallikote Forest Range Officer, travelling at a speed of between 115 and 120 kilometres per hour, considering the impact, which scattered the bodies of the elephants hit, here and there around the track, and pieces of carcasses over a distance of half a kilometre!

Not only that, it occurred in an area where elephants crossed the railway line regularly. There were as many as 10 signboards, warning that it was an ‘elephant crossing zone’ between Rambha and Huma stations, where the accident occurred. As in several other cases, the railways and Odisha forest department traded allegations as to who was to blame, with the latter claiming that the railways had been informed in time and the elephants could have been saved had the train driver been warned on the wireless; and the former claiming that the forest department’s information came at the time of the accident, which left no scope for a message to be sent. Even if there was a delay, the fact that the Coromondal Express was travelling at a very high speed through a highly sensitive area, indicated an utterly cavalier attitude toward elephants.

Consider the case in which the Jaipur-Kamakhya Kaviguru Express ran into a herd of 40 elephants at Jaldhaka bridge in north Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district, killings seven of them including two calves, and seriously injuring at least 10 on November 13, 2013. Hiten Burman, then West Bengal’s Minister for Forests, had said after the accident that the railways had repeatedly ignored requests from his department to reduce the speed of the trains in areas where there were elephant crossings. Burman clearly knew what he was talking about as he had been carefully monitoring unnatural elephant deaths in the State. He had told the State Legislative Assembly on June 21, 2012, that of the 63 elephant deaths in West Bengal during January 2010-2012, 49 and 14 occurred in north and south Bengal respectively. Of the 49 deaths in North Bengal, 22 were from railway accidents, while accidents claimed seven of the 14 fatalities in south Bengal.

Measures taken jointly by forest departments and animal welfare organisations in some States to avert such deaths include patrolling, electric fencing, installation of signage and hoardings, levelling of steep embankments, creation of awareness among train drivers and other railway staff, the clearing of vegetation at blind corners to improve visibility for train drivers and so on. There, however, have also been glaring lapses. For example, the death of two elephants in Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand in January 2013, appeared clearly to be the railways’ fault as the train was moving at a speed faster than that decided upon at a meeting between representatives of Indian Railways and the State’s forest department. This was most unfortunate as, cooperation between railways and forest department personnel was behind the park’s remarkable record of not having a single elephant death in railway accidents between 2002 and January 2013.

Clearly, the need for reducing speed is paramount. Animal Equality, an animal rights organisation in Britain, has outlined a number of steps for protecting elephants in letters to the Ministers for Railways and Environment and Forests respectively. The recommendations include equipping trains with automatic speed governors which would be activated once these enter forests where the maximum speed should be 20-25 kmph on even tracks, and 40-45 kmph on steep tracts. Equally important is the implementation of some of its other suggestions like installing in trains, scintillating head lamps with halogen/LED bulbs which would help to illuminate much longer stretches of tracks, fitting them with, water cannons to remove animals refusing to budge from tracks, and installing in them radar sensors to detect animals on tracks, determine the train’s distance from these, and act as instant auto-brakes for preventing collisions.

All this will cost money. But the protection of elephants which have been declared India’s National Heritage Animal, more than warrants the expenditure.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)