Call for rethink on strategy to prevent train-hit elephant fatalities (India)


Sivasish Thakur, Assam Tribune

Date Published

GUWAHATI, Dec 22 – Alarmed at the spurt in elephant deaths caused by speeding trains, conservationists have called for a rethink on the existing mechanism aimed at preventing elephant fatalities on killer tracks.

Saturday’s incident in which three elephants were killed near Kampur marks the seventh elephant death on railway tracks in Assam within this month. According to conservationists, the foremost need – apart from a reassessment of the vulnerable railway sections – is to put in place a foolproof joint vigilance mechanism involving Forest and Railway authorities besides the district administrations and the public.

“The growing elephant fatalities on railway tracks are extremely shocking and tragic. There are 27 identified elephant corridors under the NF Railway but elephant herds are also now also found to be crossing railway tracks which are not earmarked as vulnerable. This calls for a fresh assessment to identify new vulnerable railway sections and developing an early warning system immediately to prevent such casualties,” Anupam Sarmah, Head-Assam Landscape, WWF-India, told The Assam Tribune.

The argument put forward by the Railway authorities regarding elephant deaths on areas not falling under identified elephant corridors, however, does not cut much ice. The Supreme Court had in December 2013 directed the Union Railway Ministry to slow down all trains when they travel on tracks that pass through reserved forests and not just along elephant corridors. The bench had also made it clear that reduced speed limit had to be observed scrupulously, failing which erring drivers and officials would face appropriate action.

“Speed limits need to be enforced where railway tracks move through wildlife habitats. Locomotive drivers in particular need to strictly adhere to speed limitations when passing through stretches where elephants cross railway tracks. Strict action needs to be taken in case these rules are not followed,” Sarmah said.

Conservationists also believe that any joint monitoring and warning system between the Railway and the Forest authorities would not be effective unless those involved in the mechanism were made responsible and accountable with a well-defined mandate.

“Those operating the warning system must be held accountable for lapses. Regular coordination meetings need to be held among the relevant stakeholders and a system needs to be put in place wherein near-real time information can be fed into the train movement system to warn locomotive drivers of probable elephant crossings,” he said, adding that factors such as variations in seasonal elephant migration should also be taken into account.

“The rising elephant toll on killer tracks is very disturbing and shows that something is seriously lacking in the existing level of coordination between the Forest and Railway authorities. Trains must slow down while passing along forests and a foolproof warning system involving foresters and railway-men is a must. We also appeal to the Union Minister of State for Railways Rajen Gohain – who is also from Assam – to intervene immediately,” Dr Bibhab Talukdar, secretary general of conservation NGO Aaranyak said.

According to the WTI publication, Right of Passage-Elephant Corridors of India, 41 per cent of elephant corridors are in North-east India and 25 per cent of the elephant corridors in Assam have railway lines passing through them.

Elephants are long-ranging animals and in their search for food and water, they roam over a large extent of area through villages and towns, crossing railway lines and farms. Linear infrastructure development near and in corridors that elephants use to move from one forest area to another, force them to cross railway tracks where they end up getting hit by trains.

It was in view of the recurring train-induced elephant fatalities that the Forest Department, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the NF Railway had five years back put in place a mechanism for intensified vigil along forested tracks, with 16 areas of the State having elephant corridors identified for the purpose. But the follow-up has not been effective, as the rising incidence of elephant deaths on tracks would testify to.