Earlier this month, four elephants were killed after they were hit by a speeding train in Assam. The mishap came close on the heels of a similar incident at Walayar, Kerala, where a male wild elephant was hit by a train on November 27. In 2016, 16 elephants have died due to train-hits. The highest number in recent times was in 2010, with 20 elephant deaths.
In India, 150 elephants have been killed by trains between 1987 and 2010. Most of the deaths were reported from Assam (36%) followed by West Bengal (26%), Uttarakhand (14%), Jharkhand (10%), Tamil Nadu (6%) and less than 5% each in Uttar Pradesh, Kerala and Odisha. The report by Elephant Task Force mentioned that ‘a general lack of coordination between the railways and the forest department is the reason for lack of any sustained mitigation measure’.
Six years after the publication of the report, which gave 10 recommendations, the situation has not changed much: Trains move at a fast pace in most of these elephant habitats. A train moving at a fast speed, hitting a herd of elephants and the resulting derailment is not only disastrous for wildlife but equally dangerous for passengers.
With incidents of wildlife fatalities due to poorly planned infrastructure development increasing every day, it is time that concrete mitigation measures are put in place. One of the successful examples from the recent past is that of the railway track passing through the Rajaji National Park. Between 1987 and 2002, the railway track saw 20 elephant deaths. Soon after, the Uttarakhand forest department, the Indian Railways and the Wildlife Trust of India worked together to put in place a strategic intervention that has resulted in a near-zero elephant deaths due to train-hits in the park.
While long-term measures and strategic interventions are necessary to ensure that such deaths are mitigated at the earliest, strategic short term measures can be put in place immediately. Train speed should be capped at 40km per hour in the vulnerable stretches and night-time traffic needs to be reduced as much as possible across lines that cut through elephant habitats and movement corridors. This should be done in addition to joint patrolling by the staff of forest department and railways along critical sections of tracks to observe elephant and other wildlife movement.
Focussed awareness programme of railway staff, particularly locomotive drivers need to be undertaken as well. Over the longer term, a protocol and an advanced technology will have to be developed and implemented to notify locomotive drivers and railway signal operators about elephant crossings.
Options for realignment of railway tracks passing through critical wildlife habitats and corridors and construction of elevated railway tracks with elephant passages underneath should also be considered as permanent solutions.
Dipankar Ghose is director, species and landscapes division, WWF-India
The views are personal