As the development vs environment debate continues to gather pace, there is evidence that train traffic poses grave danger to sensitive wildlife habitats in central and eastern India
More than 1,200 passenger and freight trains crisscross through some of the country’s most sensitive wildlife habitat, particularly protected areas and corridors in central and eastern India that are home to critically endangered tigers and elephants amongst other animals, reveal government figures.
Highlighting the scale of threat to wildlife and their habitat from the vast Indian Railways network, amongst the largest in the world, information accessed through a Right to Information (RTI) query shows that these trains run multiple times a week, some of them every day.
The Mascot quite ironically is Bholu, the guard elephant
While passenger trains run daily or more than four times a week, the schedule for weekly trains varies from week to week, the data shows.
After NH-7, Gondia-Jabalpur rail line doubling allowed through Kanha-Pench tiger corridor
The Indian Railways – whose mascot quite ironically is Bholu, the guard elephant — is divided into 16 major railway zones. With the exception of a few, several routes cut through wildlife areas without speed restrictions, information from the ministry of environment shows.
The heavy traffic takes its toll. According to the environment ministry’s landmark Project Gajah, trains passing through wildlife habitats and corridors killed 150 elephants between 1987 and 2010. Given that many serious accidents have occurred after that, the fatalities may have well crossed 200, environmentalists estimate.
Besides elephants, there is poor documentation of tiger, leopard, bear and even reptile deaths caused by trains.
“I am shocked. Remember, we are talking of barely 5 per cent of India – and even these ‘protected’ areas, are heavily stressed with various anthropogenic pressures… We cannot afford to further expand the railway network in PAs (protected areas), and critical wildlife corridors., It has a human cost too, in terms of escalating conflict, economic loss, safety issues,” Prerna Bindra, wildlife conservationist and former member of the National Board for Wildlife’s standing committee, told DNA.
Mapping damage potential
An analysis of the data on railway routes in wildlife habitats throws up a worrying picture. A bulk of railway traffic is concentrated in wildlife habitats that are already shrinking and facing considerable fragmentation. This includes the central Indian landscape which is considered the most important source of meta-population among tigers, the eastern landscape, which is home to several elephant corridors, the Western Ghats, the Gir lion sanctuary and the east-northeast region of West Bengal and Assam.
Under the South East Central Railway (SECR) zone in Central India, seven railway routes run a total length of 166 km. These routes pass close to or skirt the edges of Nagzira, Navegaon and Tadoba tiger reserves in Maharashtra. In Madhya Pradesh, they pass through the Kanha, Pench and Bandhavgarh forest ranges, and even through the Achankmar forest in Chhattisgarh.
To get a sense of the fragmentation of wildlife habitat, consider this: tiger populations that have grown in protected areas use the wildlife corridors to disperse to neighbouring habitats. The vast central Indian landscape is connected through major corridors such as Kanha-Pench, Pench-Satpura-Melghat and Kanha to Navegaon-Nagzira-Tadoba-
The other concentration is seen eastwards, under the South Eastern Railway zone spread across West Bengal and Jharkhand, and under the East Coast Railway across Odisha. More than 700 trains pass through wildlife habitats in these states, which also explains the high elephant casualties. These regions are also home to tiger reserves in Palamu in Jharkhand, Buxa in West Bengal and Satkosia and Similipal in Odisha.
It doesn’t end here
In March this year, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) cleared the conversion of the 227-km Gondia-Jabalpur line between Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh from narrow gauge to broad gauge.
The Indian Railways has also approved expansion of the 156 km Sambalpur-Angul railway line in Odisha that already fragments the Satkosia-Ushakoti-Badrama tiger and elephant landscape. Additionally, the National Board for Wildlife has cleared the new Sevok Rongpo new broad gauge line in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri under the North-Frontier Railway.
According to experts, while wildlife deaths are a symptom of the threat posed by railway tracks, the larger worry is the lack of safeguards and increasing fragmentation of rich forests and wildlife habitats.
“No new roads or railways projects have any consideration for wildlife. The saddest part of the development is that we are willing to spend thousands of crores on infrastructure projects but not a fraction of them on underpasses and overpasses for wildlife. Even the NBWL does not have the guts to object,” said P.K. Sen, former head of Project Tiger.