Railway Minister Urged To Act On Rise In Elephant Deaths By Train Collisions

With the rise in number of elephant deaths due to unnatural causes in the country such as electrocution, poisoning and Human-Elephant Conflicts, mortality due to train collisions is one of the most troubling. In a joint letter to the Honourable Railway Minister, Piyush Goyal, various wildlife organisations and conservationists strongly urge the Ministry to take up the extremely serious matter of elephant deaths due to train hits across the country, and devise concrete steps and regulations to mitigate avoidable accidents along railway lines.

Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam

February 2, 2018

Honorable Minister of Railways
Federation of Railway Officer's Association Office,
256-A, Rail Bhavan, Raisina Road
New Delhi - 110001

SUBJECT: Joint letter urging the Railway Ministry to urgently address the issue of rise in elephant deaths by train collisions.

Dear Shri Piyush Goyal,

Our elephants are in trouble. We urge you, as the Minister of Railways to take up the extremely serious matter of the rise in number of elephant deaths by train collisions across the country, and devise concrete steps and regulations to mitigate avoidable accidents along railway lines, in coordination with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).

India is the major stronghold of Asian elephants, one of the few extant mega-herbivores left in the world. An approximate 26,000 to 29,000 wild elephants live here, in fragmented stretches of elephant habitat. It makes up 60 % of the world’s Asian elephant population. Where once India’s forests were teeming with elephants, now only approximately 86,000 sq. km. of disconnected pockets mark their geographical range in the country; and the health of the remaining forests and migratory corridors is failing.

Apart from their natural migratory behavior, they are now forced to wander further in search of food due to a lack of wild spaces and scarcity of resources. They are impacted in the East-Central India belt of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh because of devastation of elephant habitat and corridors by iron ore and coal mining as well as industrial development. New rail and road networks in the belt is further fragmenting the region. This, inevitably, sees herds of elephants crossing railway lines that run through sensitive wildlife areas, including Protected Areas and designated wildlife corridors. As per various studies’ estimates, on an average about 80 elephants are killed each year in India. Between 2009-10 and 2016-17, and approximately 655 elephant deaths due to human-wildlife conflict have been recorded, and of these, more than 120 deaths were due to train accidents. Scores of other wild animals, including our national animal, tiger, also fall victim to speeding trains each year.

Very recently, on December 10, 2017, six elephants including a pregnant female were mowed down by a speeding train as they were crossing a railway track in Sonitpur district of Assam, when Guwahati-Naharlagun Intercity Express hit them. The place where this incident took place happens to be an elephant corridor. This has added to the devastating toll of 40 elephant deaths in Assam due to unnatural causes in just 100 days. In 2016 too, in a single month between November and December, eight elephants succumbed to train hits in Assam. After Assam, West Bengal ranks second with 26 per cent of elephant deaths by trains recorded from the state. West Bengal is followed by Uttarakhand (14 per cent), Jharkhand (10 per cent), Tamil Nadu (6 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (3 per cent), Kerala (3 per cent) and Odisha (2 per cent). (Nimain C. Palei, Bhakta P. Rath & C. S. Kar, 2013)

These increasing instances of elephant fatalities can be largely attributed to the railway gauge conversion from meter and narrow gauge to broad gauge. Since then, the number of passenger and freight trains plying have increased exponentially. Due to the lack of stringent enforcement of speed limit regulations in sensitive wildlife zones and corridors and negligible mitigation measures to prevent such accidents from taking place, these gentle giants, recognized as India’s National Heritage Animals continue to suffer.

We believe that such incidents can be easily averted with practical interventions in the form of mitigation measures and steps to prevent train accidents. A grand example can be made of the Rajaji National Park, through which runs a railway track that was once dubbed the ‘killer track’ as it cuts through the Chilla-Motichur elephant corridor within the Park. This track claimed 20 elephants between 1987 and 2002 within the vulnerable 18 km. stretch between Kansrao and Motichur. But, thanks to certain measures, there was a miraculous turnaround and not a single elephant has been hit by a train here in a decade.

Simple yet effective measures were taken here in a commendable joint, committed effort by the forest staff, railways and Wildlife Trust of India-IFAW. A breakdown of the steps taken at Rajaji National Park is given below. These can be replicated, improved and enforced in other parts of the country, especially in sensitive locations where fatality rates are high such as in North Bengal, Assam and the Tamil Nadu – Kerala border.

1.    Identify the sensitive zones close to the railway tracks.

2.    Organise awareness workshops to sensitise the railway staff and guards.

3.    Level steep mounds along the railway lines which otherwise hinder escape attempts of the elephants.

4.    Clear ‘visibility-hindering’ vegetation along sharp bends so that train drivers and guards can see if elephants are moving in the area.

5.    Create more water holes and restore vegetation to discourage elephant movement thereby reducing the frequency of rail crossing.

6.    Educate passengers about not throwing food from train windows onto the tracks as it tends to attract animals onto the tracks.

7.    Declare caution zones where the trains will be obliged to run at considerably slower speeds.

8.    Set up Railway Patrolling Units to monitor elephant movement in the vicinity of the railway tracks. The Units and guards must be provided with wireless         communication devices to notify the station manager who can in turn alert the drivers in case of elephant herds present close by or crossing the tracks.

9.    Building of over or underpasses across the railway tracks for safe passage of the animals.

10.    New railway lines must not be constructed or existing ones widened on crucial elephant corridors.

We urge you to take the necessary steps to protect our National Heritage Animal, which also happens to be the Railway mascot. These practical interventions, implemented in collaboration with the Forest Departments and relevant NGOs, will go a long way in addressing the issue. The Indian Railways will be held in high esteem for respecting and working to conserve the country’s endangered biodiversity. We assure you of our fullest cooperation and collaboration to make this possible.

Yours truly,

1.    Bittu Sahgal, Founder, Sanctuary Nature Foundation

2.    Debi Goenka, Conservation Action Trust

3.    Devangshu Nandi, Volunteer, Green Army, Bengaluru

4.    Dinesh Kumar, Director, Vanabandhu NRM&S Pvt. Ltd.

5.    Dr. Anish Andheria, President, Wildlife Conservation Trust

6.    Dr. Deepak Apte, Director, Bombay Natural History Society

7.    Joydip Kundu, General Secretary, SHER

8.    Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-founder and CEO; Geeta Seshamani, Co-founder and Secretary Wildlife SOS

9.    Kedar Gore, Director, The Corbett Foundation

10.    Kishore Rithe, Satpuda Foundation

11.    Neha Sinha, environmental writer and Guest Faculty, Delhi University

12.    Prerna Singh Bindra, Former Member, National Board for Wildlife and environmental writer

13.    Pushp Jain, EIA Resource and Response Centre (ERC)

14.    Rituraj Phukan, Secretary General, Green Guard Nature Organisation