Wildlife & Biodiversity

How to save India’s elephants from killer rail tracks

The government, railways and forest department have it within their power to initiate a number of measures to reduce elephant deaths on rail tracks

By V Sundararaju
Published: Wednesday 06 February 2019
Credit: Getty Images

The extensive network of Indian Railways cuts across dense forests, habitat of various wild species. In many states, railway lines passing through elephant habitats have led to numerous accidents and the death of 249 elephants during 1987-2018.

Between 2015 and 2018, 49 elephants were killed in train accidents (Nine in 2015-16; 21 in 2016-17; 19 in 2017-18). Of these Assam and West Bengal accounted for 37 deaths and Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and other states for the remaining. While the numbers have gradually decreased between 2015-16 and 2017-18 for West Bengal, in Assam were on the rise.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) acted as early as 2016 to mitigate human-elephant conflict, but elephants have continued to die due to speeding trains. This despite the MoEF&CC declaring the elephant a ‘national heritage animal’ in 2010, considering the valuable ecological services rendered by the species.

Elephants are architects of the forest and woodland ecosystem. Many ecologists feel woodlands may cease to exist without elephants. In tropical forests, 30 per cent of the gigantic tree species and 40 per cent of tall tree species depend on elephants for seed dispersal. Considered nature’s ‘gardener’, they are key in shaping the landscape, in pollination, germination of seeds and improving the fertility of forest soil with heaps of dung.

Given the importance of the elephant, urgent measures to reduce its mortality are to be thought over seriously, discussed in detail and implemented properly.

Why the accidents

In a first, the Divisional Forest Officer of Walayar in Kerala booked a train driver for hitting and knocking an elephant 100 metres away while speeding in July 2016 under Section 9 (Hunting and the intent to hunt) of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. However, I feel that mutual understanding and friendly coordination between the forest department and the railways are very much required to sort out the issue.

The importance of elephants for the existence of forests — which provide for humanity’s basic needs, including pure air, clean water, medicine and energy and also ensure food security — should be explained to railway officials. They should be taken deep inside forest areas for this. Such sensitisation programmes, especially for train drivers, guards and station masters may be of great help in averting any kind of possible tragic events. If needed, frontline forest staff also may be allowed to travel along with the railway engine driver to identify the vulnerable spots so as to ensure the safety of the animals.

At the same time, forest officials also should understand the difficulties faced by railway personnel while driving fast-moving trains through dense forests, especially during night hours.

In certain places, when the elephant tries to cross the railway track, it gets trapped between steep embankments on either side of the track. In such cases, the steep embankments need to be flattened and periodical patrolling is very much required.

Due to the obstruction of the view of the railway track, especially at bends, caused by vegetation that has grown on either side of the track, certain unavoidable accidents take place. In order to avoid such incidents, clearing of the vegetation all along the track should be carried out periodically. Solar-powered lights at curves and cuttings can be provided to have a better view for a long distance.

The accidents have increased after gauge conversion and also due to enhanced speeds of trains from 60 kph to 100 kph. Of course, the increase in the elephant population has also contributed to the increasing number of accidents. In addition to elephants, other animals like gaur, sambar, leopard and tiger have been killed by colliding with trains due to the expansion of the railway network, gauge conversion, over-speeding and increased frequency.

What can be done

When a study was undertaken on the frequent accidents caused due to elephants colliding with fast-moving trains, it was found that most accidents had taken place during the night — from 6 pm to 6 am — rather than the day as elephants rest in dense forest during daytime.  Reducing the operation of trains during the night to the barest minimum is one way to avoid this situation. Railway authorities should see to it that the speed of the trains that pass through forests in which wild animals reside, is regulated between sunset and sunrise. A minimum speed of 30 kilometres/hour is to be maintained when trains pass through dense forests at night. Utmost care should be taken at vulnerable sections.

At places where elephant corridors and railway tracks intersect, the construction of underpasses or overpasses can be planned to enable the animals to cross over without any difficulty. A study has shown that ramps constructed near rail tracks in the Coimbatore division of Tamil Nadu have helped pachyderms to return to the forest when they noticed a fast-moving train. These ramps have been planned based on the camera trap information and built meticulously as a protective measure.    

Warning signboards indicating the movement of animals across the tracks can be erected at vulnerable stretches in order to alert train drivers.

Railway staff can be deputed for keeping the track free from any food waste as the same may attract wild animals. Train passengers should be made aware about not disposing of waste food and other eatables on the tracks. Coordinated patrolling of the vulnerable tracks by forest, wildlife and railway staff can be organised especially during the night time and during crop-raiding seasons and information about the presence of elephants can be passed on to railway signalmen. As patrolling inside thick forest at night may be dangerous, more watch towers need to be erected at vulnerable spots.

Electronic surveillance equipment, cameras and wireless sensors should be installed along accident-prone stretches so as to avoid any incident. Infrared beams can be used for detecting elephant movements and acoustic devices can be utilised to scare them away from the tracks.

Vulnerable stretches, which are known for frequent and large number of accidents, can be identified and tracks there can be realigned.

Excluding the sections of track used by elephants to cross, the remaining parts should be fenced and elephant-proof trenches dug out, with the idea of preventing them from crossing the vulnerable stretches. During summer, elephants are in the habit of roaming over long distances in search of water and food. In order to curtail their movements across the tracks, ponds can be created on the sides in addition to developing fodder resources in the forest areas.

A map can be prepared showing the sites of train accidents in which animals died, the time, period of the collisions (many collisions have taken place during the paddy and maize harvesting seasons), elephant crossing points and the routes of the movement of the animals along the tracks, and exhibited at the concerned railway stations and forest offices, with the idea of avoiding any possible accidents by creating awareness on the movement of the elephants.

All these measures must involve the Indian Railways, the MoEF&CC, forest departments of the concerned states, non-profits, biologists, engineers, technocrats, estate managers, conservationists, ecologists and locals who live near such areas, to evolve some effective methods to save elephants from fast-moving trains.

The Tamil Nadu experience

The Tamil Nadu forest department has installed infrared sensors on 6 metre-long poles and on trees on either side of the railway track close to the elephant corridor in the Coimbatore forest division. If the sensor senses any elephant, a sound alarm is set off and alerts forest officials, enabling them to rush immediately to the spot to drive away the animals. Also, a text message is sent to the concerned railway control room to pass on the message to the train driver in order to reduce the speed.

Officials of the Eastern Railway have erected devices which loudly broadcast the buzzing sound of honeybees in order to drive away elephants, as they are scared of the insects’ buzzing noise.

The forest department of Uttarakhand has started using drones to track elephant movement.

Felicitation of train drivers and other officials, who avert any possible collision, can boost morale and motivate them to improve their efficiency towards saving the pachyderms.

Adequate and timely compensation for crop damage, grievous injury or human casualty should be arranged and provided to affected families.

The capabilities of the field personnel of the forest department as well as of the railways should be enhanced through periodical workshops and field visits by experts on wildlife and biodiversity.  

In the past, wastelands stretched from the boundaries of reserve forests to human habitations, with scattered tree growth. These acted as corridors for wild animals, especially elephants. The owners of these lands raised rain-fed crops such as jowar, foxtail millet, kodo millet and little millet, only for a few months in a year. The elephants moved along the migratory routes from time immemorial without causing any trouble to anyone.

Currently, farmers have started raising crops like sugarcane, banana, maize and areca nut, using borewells and tubewells, with electric fences all around these lands. Attracted by the palatable crops, elephants get electrocuted when they touch the electric fence. In places without any fence, elephants raid crops. Farmers can be advised to cultivate alternate crops like castor, chilli, cotton, gingelly, onion, garlic, ginger, mulberry, tobacco and turmeric, which are not preferred by elephants.

Besides, most wastelands have been converted into real estate, farm houses, mystic centres, resorts and educational institutions, without getting any permission from the authorities. As a result, elephants have been forced to move towards railway lines.

In Tamil Nadu for instance, most drylands, though owned by private individuals, have been notified under the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest Act (TNPPF Act) and Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA). To be frank, the concerned government departments and revenue officials were not aware of the aftermath of the changes in crop patterns and other developments taking place in these areas, resulting in human-animal conflict. Consequently, when there was a hue and cry about human-animal conflict, the district administration took serious action to shut down educational institutions and other resorts in Coimbatore district near Mettupalayam at the foothill of the Nilgiris hill range and the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR). Of course, the intervention of the Supreme Court of India in saving the elephants by ordering the closure of the resorts along the Sigur plateau lying between Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) and the Nilgiris hill range is known to everyone.

Considering the above facts, if serious and earnest efforts are taken at appropriate levels, the killing of elephants by speeding trains can be reduced to a great extent, thereby mitigating human-elephant conflict considerably.

The author is President, the Society for Conservation of Nature, Trichy, Tamil Nadu and consultant with the Society for Social Forest Research & Development, Tamil Nadu

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