Trains and trumpets

Killer Tracks

Trains and trumpets

The Siliguri-Alipurduar railway track in West Bengal is famous for the beautiful landscape it passes through, but it is equally infamous for the number of elephants that get killed by trains. Shreya Dasgupta analyses human-elephant conflict in the region.

I drove along the Siliguri-Alipurduar railway track on the National Highway 31C, through the picturesque Dooars in North Bengal. The road runs mostly parallel to the railway track, going through large tracts of forests intersected by rivers and streams, crop fields, and lush green tea gardens.

A few kilometers before Madarihat to my left, I saw an upturned train bogey looking battered and covered entirely by dust flying off the roads. The train had apparently hit a tree and derailed a few days ago. One local inhabitant told me that the weather had been foggy and the driver had failed to see the tree.

While the Siliguri-Alipurduar railway track is famous for the beautiful landscape it passes through, it is equally (in)famous for the number of elephants that get killed by trains, every year. The latest casualty involves three elephants that died and one calf grievously injured in Rajabhatkhawa, Jalpaiguri, by Jhajha-Guwahati Express. A two-year-old calf was mowed down by the Kanchankanya Express on December 4, 2012 in the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, between Gulma and Sevoke.

In June 2011, two elephants, part of a 60-odd herd, suffered a similar fate near a tea estate after they came in the way of the Asansol Express. They did not die immediately, but succumbed to fatal injuries a few days later. In September 2010, seven elephants were killed by a goods train between Banarhat and Binnaguri. These are only a few individuals out of the more than 40 elephants (as recorded by the Forest Department) that have died or have been critically injured on these tracks over the past 10 years.

Increase in crop raids

According to the locals, elephants regularly cross the tracks to move between forest patches, to go to the nearby fields to raid paddy or maize and to raid houses for bananas, and food stored in their kitchens. The latter sometimes results in a broken wall, or window. Sometimes, solitary elephants or herds of them are chased off the tea gardens or villages by the locals or people from the Forest Department. This, in some cases, has caused chaos resulting in elephants coming in front of trains suddenly and getting killed.

According to the people, the crop-raiding incidents have increased over the past five-six years and several families have stopped their agricultural practices completely. Some have also been asked by the Forest Department to stop growing rice or maize since it tempts the elephants to cross the railway tracks so as to come to their fields, frequently getting them in train accidents as a result.

Most of the local villagers and tea garden workers respect that elephants are large-bodied mammals that cannot be held in by the boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Elephants are present almost everywhere along the Siliguri-Alipurduar railway track, at least during most parts of the year, if not all. The track lies in prime elephant habitat, which forms a part of the eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot.

Every year, elephants migrate over large distances across this region to meet their requirements of food and water. Initially, this tract of land was covered by forests, and was sparsely populated. Large investment, mainly British, resulted in an enormous growth of tea plantation agriculture. The meter gauge railway system here was laid down for these tea plantation estates.

The gauge conversion from meter gauge to broad gauge was started in 1999 and completed in November 2003. This happened despite a PIL filed by WWF-India, West Bengal, at the Calcutta High Court, opposing the conversion on grounds of safeguarding wildlife and the presence of an already existing broad-gauge line 5-30 km away from the meter gauge line. In India, the Environmental Impact Assessment notification of 1994 and later in 2006 issued under Environment (Protection) Act 1986 does not include Railways as one of the identified sector for EIA study.

More deaths post conversion

The conversion resulted in increasing number of passenger and goods trains plying on the track, and greater speed of the trains. Not surprisingly, since the conversion, the frequency of elephant deaths due to train accidents has increased from an average of about one per year prior to broad gauge to more than four per year post conversion.
Deaths of gaurs, leopards, fishing cats, sambars, chitals and pythons have also occurred post gauge conversion, many of which go unrecorded by the Forest Department.

On recommendations of an investigative team set up by the High Court, the Court issued certain directives to the railways in 2002, to minimise negative impacts on wildlife, such as construction of barriers at certain stretches to restrict elephant movement and cautious driving at specified stretches, amongst others. While most trains honk all the way, some villagers say that the honking sometimes agitates the elephants, which often charge at the on-coming train instead of moving away.

Most trains interpret the ‘cautious driving’ directive in their own ways, some express trains going up to speeds of more than 90 km per hour inside and outside forests.Despite the directives being issued by the High Court, and the railways complying with some of them in entirety, casualties have not reduced. The Forest Department numbers claim that elephant populations are on the rise.

In fact, according to a senior West Bengal forest department official, the railway track does not pose any problem for elephants. He believes that the elephant numbers need to come down in the region to reduce loss of crops, property and human life. However, the population estimates are doubtful, since the methods of estimation are not scientifically rigorous.The first step in alleviating the problem is to acknowledge its existence, instead of considering these accidents as one-off events.

Since elephants regularly move throughout this landscape, through forests, crop lands and tea gardens, speed limitations in just a few stretches within forests is not an answer to the problem. In any case, speed is not monitored effectively and warning systems do not seem to be very functional either. Elephants move mostly at night, and trains at night should be banned to minimise conflict.

An alternate broad gauge line exists through Falakata in Jalpaiguri, not far from the railway line in contention; railway authorities could double the route to ease traffic. One example of a successful ban on night traffic is one in Bandipur National Park in Karnataka to minimise road-kills. It is high time that the Forest and Railways Department snap out of their apathy and work together, instead of their blame games.

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