Road and rail accidents kill about 1.5 lakh Indians every year. That is 0.01% of the country’s 133 crore population. It is a significant cost to pay for the benefits of modern transportation.
Elephants have no use for roads and trains. And yet, at 10-20 deaths on tracks per year, the loss to their 30,000-strong population in India is five times higher in percentage terms. And it is getting worse every year.
A report by the Elephant Task Force, commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, estimated that over 100 elephants were killed by trains in the first decade of this century. As many as 20 were killed in 2010 alone. There were two large tragedies: 6 deaths in Odisha’s Ganjam district on December 29, 2012, and 7 deaths in North Bengal on November 13, 2013.
2016 has been a bad year — the last five months have witnessed at least 15 elephant casualties on tracks — 2 in Tamil Nadu (June), 3 in Kerala (July and November), 3 in West Bengal (August), 2 in Jharkhand (September), 1 in Uttarakhand (October), and now 4 in Assam over 2 days (early on Monday, early on Tuesday). On every occasion, locomotive drivers are accused of flouting the speed limit of 40-50 km/h in elephant corridors.
Of the 88 identified elephant corridors in India, 40 have national highways running through them, 21 have railway tracks, and 18 have both. It makes little economic sense to impose restrictions on speed or night traffic along such lengths of India’s ever-expanding linear network. Also, accidents can happen even at low speeds — due to human errors and the unpredictability of animal movement.
In North Bengal, for example, the night speed limit used to apply to only 17.4 km — a length arrived at by adding a series of short stretches of 1-3 km each in an 80-km stretch between Alipurduar and Siliguri. Since 1-3 km doesn’t cover even the braking distance, trains ran slowly over the entire distance. So it did not make a difference when the forest department extended the 17.4 km go-slow stretch to 79.60 km in 2013.
Speed restrictions are feasible only in short, singular stretches, such as the 11 km killer stretch near Berhampore in Odisha, the 8 km stretch that cuts through Jharkhand’s Palamu, or the 4 km death trap in the Palghat Gap that connects Kerala’s Palakkad and Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore through the Western Ghats. It is not an option on steep gradients, such as Assam’s Karbi Anglong, where trains have to accelerate to climb the slope.
Speed restrictions, wherever feasible, must be guided by real-time inputs from forest staff on elephant movements to help locomotive drivers. A protocol put in place in Rajaji National Park helped avert elephant casualties for 12 long years. Followed rigorously, it still holds good, and can be replicated in short stretches elsewhere.
But where a track or road cuts across several wildlife corridors over a longer stretch, the real solution is realignment. For example, it makes little sense to restrict the speed of trains along the 80 km Alipurduar-Siliguri stretch, when there is a less vulnerable alignment available through Falakata.
Where realignment of a longer stretch is not possible — like the track that must cut through Rajaji National Park to connect Dehradun to the rest of India — we need elevated tracks with underpasses for safe, unhindered animal movement.
This requires major investment, and all forest routes across the country can’t be realigned or elevated overnight. But the Railways needs to prioritise, and consider the aspects of speed and safety while planning new projects or expanding existing ones.
It isn’t only about conservation either. Luckily, the Railways has avoided major passenger casualties so far, but collisions with elephants almost invariably damage and derail locomotives, lead to temporary suspensions of service, and impose costs on the exchequer. These considerations should help offset the cost burden of route realignment or constructing underpasses.
In the past, cost-cutting, or a lack of understanding of animal behaviour, or both, have come in the way of finding viable solutions. Given their size, elephants do not venture into narrow, low passages. They don’t climb vibrating ramps to cross a highway or railway track either. Funnelling the animals towards designated passageways is also critical because herds stick to their traditional routes.
The first recorded instance of elephants taking an underpass was in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Then Kenya built a 6-metre long underpass, linking Mount Kenya National Park and Nagre Ndare Forest Reserve, which is being used by herds since 2012.
At home, solitary bulls occasionally used the Dogudda aqueduct to cross the Chilla-Rishikesh highway, but the matriarchal herds stayed away. Not until 2010 did we have the first evidence in India that adequately-built underpasses allowed regular herd movement.
About 35 km of NH 152 that connects Assam’s Pathsala to Bhutan’s Nganglam cuts through the buffer zone of Manas National Park. Anwaruddin Choudhury, then deputy commissioner of Buxa district, insisted on realigning the original road that ran through the core of the National Park and constructing two underpasses.
When the highway was ready in 2010, it offered two 30-foot high and 100-foot wide passageways, which elephant herds started using within months.
The solutions don’t have to be necessarily expensive. In many areas, it may be also possible to funnel elephants with fencing to designated level-crossing zones where they will not struggle to climb up or down the tracks. But site-specific, scientific remedies need to be decided upon, and implemented irrespective of the cost.
The healthiest forests, wrote the 12th century Western Chalukya king Somesvara III in his Manasollasa, were the ones in which elephants thrived, and it was the sovereign’s duty to protect those forests. Eight centuries later, in an increasingly crowded and denuded India, these large, long-ranging animals are hopelessly squeezed for space and starved of resources.
In the last three years, more than 200 elephants have died in conflict with humans across India. Another dozen or or two lost on killer tracks may not make a big difference unless we, as a nation, are serious about the future of our wild elephants.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines