Death by the Intercity Express: Another Elephant Falls Prey to Infrastructure
This is simply unplanned laying of tracks, cutting through critical elephant habitats and corridors
On September 27, Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal was witness to yet another instance of conflict between humans and other species. Plying the Banarhat-Nagrakata route in North Bengal, the Siliguri-Dhubri Intercity Express travelling at a speed of 50-60 kilometres per hour hit a male elephant crossing the railway track.
The elephant succumbed to his wounds later that day. A video of the tragedy was widely shared on social media, documenting the injured animal’s struggle.
At least 80 elephants are killed in India each year, with 655 deaths recorded in the eight years between 2009 and 2017, according to data released by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Asian elephants are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In India elephant deaths are primarily caused by electrocution, collisions with trains, poaching and poisoning. 19 elephant deaths by train, 66 deaths by electrocution and 10 deaths each by poaching and poisoning were recorded in 2017. These numbers showed a marginal decline the following year, with 13 deaths caused by trains and 48 by electrocution.
“West Bengal (largely north Bengal) accounts for about 30% of all elephant deaths due to trains in the country, second only to Assam, which is at 35%. This is simply unplanned laying of tracks, adjacent to or cutting through critical elephant habitats and corridors,” said Mayukh Chatterjee, an expert in human-wildlife conflict mitigation at the Wildlife Trust of India.
“Over the last decade the number of trains has increased. With the advent of electric engines, trains have also become much more silent, while their speeds have shot up,” Chatterjee told The Citizen.
The conversion from metre gauge to broad gauge has brought in faster trains, further endangering the lives of wild elephants in these regions.
“There are few statistics as earlier incidents were not recorded that well, but the impact of broad gauge conversion can be seen in every region where such incidents occur continuously,” said Chatterjee.
The Siliguri-Alipurduar line was converted to broad gauge in 2003, as per a railway official with the Alipurduar Division of the Northeast Frontier Railway.
The death on September 27 took place around 8.30 am. According to Chatterjee, a male makhna tuskless elephant was spotted at a distance of 50 metres by the locomotive pilot, who then applied the emergency brake. “But stopping a passenger train at 50 metres is next to impossible, and the consequence was the elephant and train engine colliding. The sheer injury done to the elephant and the damage to the engine is witness to that,” he said.
As per information received by the Wildlife Trust of India, the train was travelling at a speed of 50-60 kmph in this sensitive region. The railway official we spoke with confirmed that the maximum speed restriction for the Siliguri-Alipurduar line is 47 kmph.
“We have a forest guard who informs us of movements. He works on an evening shift. He tells us where elephants are about to emerge, and accordingly the speed is reduced in such areas as per their guidance,” the official told The Citizen.
He further said that most deaths by train in the region are seen to occur with isolated elephants, who are not travelling in a herd, or those who appear at unexpected hours such as early in the morning.
Chatterjee emphasised however that the primary cause of such accidents is the fragmentation of wild habitats, due to increasing human expansion that is rapidly altering land use patterns.
Elephants try to cross the Numaligarh Refinery boundary wall whose demolition the Supreme Court ordered later. In 2015 a male elephant died of haemorrhage after trying to batter his way through the wall
“Elephant-train hits specifically occur when the railway tracks pass through elephant movement areas, and increase with the high frequency and speed of trains, and with a lack of any aversive measures,” Chatterjee said.
“The protected areas are also not safe, as humans continue to erode them from within as well. There is no active mitigation strategy implemented in these areas to prevent such encounters,” he added.
According to Parveen Kaswan, an Indian Forest Service officer, “Human wildlife conflict is definitely posing a great challenge in various parts of India. Habitat fragmentation and the increase in human population are the main reasons. The various patches of forest that remain are now acting like islands, so movement between them is not happening smoothly for wild animals. In their migrations animals are more frequently facing roads, canals, human habitations,” he told The Citizen.
The Northeast Frontier Railway official stated that maximum efforts are being made to prevent such deaths. He said that 673 elephants had been saved in the last four years, while only two deaths were recorded this year along the 168 km Siliguri-Alipurduar line.
Outlining the measures implemented by the railways to prevent such deaths, he stated that locomotive pilots are taught what actions to take if they sight an elephant, and how to control the train in such situations.
“We hold regular meetings with the Forest Department,” he told The Citizen. Forest officials and the area’s railway station master also communicate online through a WhatsApp group.
Further, elephant signs have been put up in sensitive locations. Many forest areas have also been fenced and ramps made to facilitate the wild elephants’ movements. 30 metres of forest have been cleared on either side of the railway track, so that elephants and other wildlife become easily visible to the pilot.
“Announcements are made to inform passengers not to throw any food on the tracks, which they often do, as elephants generally stop to eat it,” the official added.
Chatterjee pointed to work done by the Wildlife Trust of India to reduce elephant-train hits in the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand. “Simple measures after a detailed survey, such as intensive patrolling at night to drive elephants away from the track, clearing dense vegetation along blind curves to increase visibility, clearing litter thrown out of the trains, and intensive sensitisation of loco pilots, led to keeping this stretch free of elephant-train collisions for a decade from 2002 to 2012. Such simple initiatives can go a long way to reduce such tragic incidents.”
“What is important is that instead of looking for automation as an expensive substitute, simple solutions like on-foot patrolling of critical stretches (identified through intensive surveys) must be carried out regularly by both the railways and forest departments. If required they can take the help of civil society agencies. The problem is everyone’s and it has to be solved by joining hands,” he said.