Kerala: Rail fences to stop jumbos (State of Kerala, India)


R Ayyappan, Deccan Chronicle

Date Published

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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A railway track that is strong enough to hold loaded trains that weigh more than the combined weight of 220 elephants is now seen as the best bet to prevent wild animals from straying into human settlements. 

The Railways, as part of their safety protocol, discard rails that are 20 years old. It is these scrapped rails that the Forest Department now wants to erect as elephant fences in problem areas along the fringes of national parks and sanctuaries.

“We have plans to use rail fences in the Palakkad division, as a pilot of sorts,” said Dr Anikumar Bhardwaj, the head of forest force (HOFF) and principal chief conservator of forests. The human-elephant conflict is highest in the Mannarkad division (Palakkad) and in North Wayanad. “We have asked our ministry (Ministry of Environment and Forests) to talk to the Railways,” he said. 

Dr Bharadwaj said that rail fences looked better than the normal interventions like trenches and electric fences. Still, he is wary for two reasons; the rail fence has not been tested in the country and it could be costly as the Railways charge high for their scrap.

The head of forest force is also worried about the ill-effects of permanent barriers. “These could prevent other species, too, from moving between forests and could also prompt them to explore new non-forest areas thus defeating the very purpose of a barrier,” Dr Bharadwaj said. 

Dr P.O. Nameer (professor and head of Centre for Wildlife Studies, Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur), who first brought the rail fence to the notice of the Forest Department in 2015, said the rail fence addresses the issue to a large extent.

Dr Nameer said that rail fence was ecologically sustainable as it did not hamper the movement of the non-target species. The rail fence will be like two or three parallel railway tracks lifted up and placed vertically, except that the vertical poles will be placed wider apart. 

“The space in between will be too small for an elephant but large enough for other animal species like tiger or fox or bulls or deer to cross from one area to the other,” Dr Nameer said.
In the case of a trench or a wall or an electric fence, it blocks the movement of all species. The rail-fence is also virtually maintenance-free, he added. However, Dr Nameer, like HOFF Dr Bharadwaj, said that the construction of barriers of whatever type should be considered only as a last resort.