Three elephants die on Bengal's killer track

Speeding trains have killed 43 elephants in Jalpaiguri since 2004; forest and railway officials propose constructing bridges, underpasses for the animals, and using contraception to contain their numbers

 
By Sayantan Bera
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

The elephant calf which died in the accident (Photo: Atish Sen)

Three elephants, including a calf, were killed while crossing the rail tracks near Banarhat in North West Bengal early morning on Thursday. The speeding Alipurduar-Mahananda Link Express grievously injured another member of the herd.

“The track runs through notified elephant corridor between Moraghat and Reti forests in Jalpaiguri district. The apparent cause was over-speeding by the train and we have asked the railways for the logbook,” said Bidyut Sarkar, divisional forest officer.

In September 2010, seven elephants had died 100 metres away from the  spot where the three jumbos were killed. Soon after, it was decided trains would run at speeds between 40-50 km/hr. But the forest department did not file any FIR or a formal complaint against the railways. “On January 4 this year, four elephants were killed by a train speeding at over 100 km/hr,” said Aniket Modak, secretary of the  wildlife non-profit Arohan at Jalpaiguri. Clearly there is lack of coordination between the railways and the forest department.

Conversion to broad gauge increased accidents

The 168 km track of the Indian Railways, which has the elephant 'Bholu' as its mascot, running between Siliguri and Alipurduar has claimed the lives of 43 elephants since 2004. That year, the track was converted from meter gauge to broad gauge, which resulted in increased frequency and speed of trains.

Elephant deaths on the Siliguri-Alipurduar track
 
  • 2013: 9 till date
  • 2010-12: 30
  • 2004-2013: 43
  • 1974-2002: 27

Source: Public interest petition filed in Calcutta High Court by Wildlife activists in 2013
 
“In 30 years between 1974 and 2004, 27 elephants died on the same track. After the conversion to broad gauge, casualties have increased five times,” said Heerak Nandi, a wildlife activist from Kolkata and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Commission of Ecosystem Management. Nandi together with other environmentalists  filed a public interest petition in the Calcutta High Court in February this year (see 'Elephant deaths on the Siliguri-Alipurduar track').

'We want all night trains, other than passenger and inter-city expresses,  to stop between 5.30 PM and 5.30 AM. The Indian Railways should seriously consider using the alternate track between New Jalpaiguri and New Alipurduar, which will save them diesel costs. The alternate track runs for 143 km and traffic can be diverted by making it a double line with a third line dedicated for goods trains,” contended Nandi.

Dubious data

Instead, the forest department has been drawing up bizarre plans in collaboration with the Railways officials. This includes constructing underpasses and over-bridges for elephants. In February this year, the World Wildlife Fund, the international conservation NGO, held a workshop with the forest department to use “contraception” to control “rising” elephant numbers.

According to figures from the forest department, elephant numbers have increased from 350 to 529 between 2007 and 2010 in north-west Bengal. “Even if we imagine that all adult females were breeding during this period, the figure could not have touched 529. The data is suspect even when accounting for migration,” added Nandi.

What needs to be done

"We know the vulnerable spots in the country, we also know that about 90 per cent of such fatal accidents occur at night. An immediate step is that trains slow down their speed considerably from dusk to dawn across these vulnerable stretches, along with intensive patrolling to detect, and alert the Railways about elephant movement. The Railways need to be serious about protecting its mascot,” said, Prerna Singh Bindra, member of standing committee of National Board for Wildlife under the Union environment ministry.

“Equally important is securing elephant habitats and corridors which have no legal cover and are being decimated. Currently, India has identified 88 elephant corridors, and 40 of these have national highways running through them, 21 have railway tracks and 18 have both. The Siliguri-Alipurduar track, for example, cuts through the tropical forests of the eastern Himalayas with tracts of protected areas fragmented by tea gardens, railway tracks, roads and small towns. Key wildlife corridors need to be notified as eco-sensitive zones so that any major industrial or infrastructure activity in these areas goes through the wildlife scrutiny,” added Bindra.

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