K K Dey,chief loco-inspector in the Northeast Frontier Railway at Lumding,had never considered a speeding train knocking down an elephant as such a major loss until he attended a workshop on train-elephant collision organised by the Wildlife Trust of India a few months ago.
I have been a witness to several such elephant deaths in my 32-year career. But it was only recently that I realised why we should also care about the elephant, said Dey. He is among the 80-odd loco-drivers and other staff of the NF Railway who have undergone training on how to save elephants on the tracks.
Elephants getting killed on railway tracks has been commonplace in Assam,given the fact that railway lines pass by five major elephant reserves in the state,often cutting through natural elephant corridors. A study conducted by the WTI has revealed that as many as 187 elephants have been killed by trains in the country between 1987 and 2011,of which Assam accounts for 37 per cent or 69 cases.
While elephants crossing tracks has been a major problem for us,we have launched a vigorous drive to train our loco-drivers to be on the maximum alert especially when passing through or near known elephant reserves and corridors, said S S Hajong,chief public relations officer,NF Railway.
The campaign mounted by NF Railway includes time-to-time workshops for loco-drivers and other staff,joint patrolling with forest and NGO volunteers,and a vigorous poster campaign in vulnerable sections,said Hajong.
NGOs like WTI and Aaranyak have come out in a big way to train our people,leading to a significant reduction of such cases, he said.
Elephants need a lot of water and food,while factors like temperature,fodder scarcity,increasing human activity inside their habitats,encroachment and deforestation have prompted the animals to increasingly shift from one place to another, said Dhanjit Das of the WTI.
A series of workshops,jointly organised by the WTI,NF Railway,and the Forest department,have led to joint patrolling in vulnerable sections. Waste food thrown from pantry cars of trains by passengers has also been identified as another reason for elephant deaths.
During 2011 alone,such efforts have led to averting nearly 300 accidents in Assam itself,the highest being 106 in the most vulnerable Diphu-Daldali section,followed by 91 in Daldali-Dhansiri section,and 52 in Deepor Beel area near Guwahati, Das pointed out.
Loco-drivers nowadays remain alert while passing through such sections,and call up the nearest station masters and patrol parties to find out about the movements of elephants.
Meanwhile,IIT-Delhi has developed a wireless sensor device called The Wild Animal Protection System,which will not only help detect the presence of elephants on the track but also activate a signal system to the nearest station to warn trains to slow down or stop.
Similar sensor devices are used by international car companies and in some trains and ships,and have proved useful in avoiding collisions. A pilot project of the sensor device is expected to be developed by 2015 and will be ready for testing in 2016 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests,initially in West Bengal, said Amruta Ubale of Animal Equality,another NGO working for elephant conservation. West Bengal,in fact,accounts for 27 per cent of the train-hit elephant deaths in the country.