The dog survived, but the elephants didn’t. The pandas may never know the trains are there.
DUPONT, Washington; GUWAHATI, India; CHENGDU, China––Just like in the movies, the dog survived.
A Dachshund/terrier mix belonging to passenger Shaheim Lewis, Daisy went flying but suffered no serious injuries, according to the Tacoma Tribune, when Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 derailed on December 18, 2017 near DuPont, Washington, killing three people on the first paid run of the train over the newly opened Point Defiance Bypass.
Having entered a bend graded for 30 miles per hour at 78 miles per hour, the Amtrak Cascades 501 entered history alongside the steamship Titanic (1912), the airship Hindenberg (1937), and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940), which collapsed almost within sight of the train crash site, as spectacular failures of supposed state-of-the-art technology soon after their debuts.
Worst elephant/train crash since 2010
While much of the U.S. and the world wondered why Amtrak couldn’t keep a new train on the rails, much of India was wondering––again––why India Railways cannot seem to keep elephants off the rails, after the Guwahati-Naharlagun Express killed six elephants in a 2:20 a.m. collision on December 10, 2017 near Bamgaon, Sonitpur district, Assam state.
That was the worst elephant/train crash since seven elephants were killed by a speeding freight train on the night of September 22, 2010 in the Moraghat forest of West Bengal.
But two elephants were killed just a month before the collision of December 10, 2017 in a similar collision near the Guwahati suburb of Thakurkuchi.
Elephants broke through barrier
“Forest and railway officials said that the spot where six elephants were hit by the train was not usually frequented by jumbos, and hence was out of patrolling range,” reported Naresh Mitra for the Times News Network.
The six dead elephants were among a herd of about 30 who broke through a barrier at a grade crossing, Mitra reported.
“Unabated forest destruction”
Available data indicates that India has an average of 10 to a dozen elephant/train collisions per year, mostly in the far eastern corridor states south of the Himalayas, north of Bangladesh. Excessive train speed is often blamed for the crashes, but Mitra attributed the Bamgaon collision to “unabated forest destruction in Sonitpur district on the northern banks of Brahmaputra,” the river draining most of the eastern Himalayas in both China and India before feeding into the Ganges.
“It is estimated that almost 70% of forest area in the district has been encroached,” Mitra wrote. “Habitat destruction is one of the reasons why elephants are frequently changing their normally used corridors in search of food, as happened in Bamgaon.”
China: farther, faster, minimizing risk
China, meanwhile, on December 6, 2017 opened a 310-mile “bullet train” link between Xi’an and Chengdu, designed to travel farther, faster through national wildlife reserves than any train before it, with less risk to the animals.
The new bullet train, reportedly the first train of any sort to cut directly though the Qinling Mountains, in Shaanxi province, also crosses the Tian Hua Shan Mountain reserve.
The region “is one of three major habitats for the giant panda, with about 345 of China’s 1,864 wild giant pandas living there, according to the fourth National Survey on Giant Pandas released in 2015,” reported Luo Wangshu for China Daily.
Significant as it now is, the Shaanxi panda habitat is scheduled to be linked by newly created wildlife corridors to many others, according to a scheme described by China Daily in March 2017, which is to connect 67 existing panda reserves into a single reserve three times the size of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.
Requiring the relocation of villages now inhabited by about 170,000 people, chiefly in Sichuan province, the panda reserve scheme is expected to simultaneously stimulate panda population growth in the wild and boost ecotourism.
The Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is already the leading tourism draw in the region, distantly rivaled by the Animals Asia Foundation sanctuary for moon bears rescued from the bear bile industry. Originally well outside the fast-growing city of Chengdu, the moon bear sanctuary has over the past 15 years become hemmed in by urban sprawl.
Avoided laying tracks “where wildlife gathers”
Besides giant pandas, endangered species along the bullet train route include the golden monkey, crested ibis, and golden takin.
But none are expected to be at risk from the bullet train, though it will travel far faster for most of the route than Amtrak Cascades 501 was supposed to go at any point.
“We avoided laying tracks more than 1,500 meters above sea level, where the majority of wildlife gathers,” China Railway environmental engineer Lai Wenhong told Luo Wangshu.
90% tunnels & bridges
Wrote Luo Wangshu, “More than 90% of the railway is tunnels and bridges, said Liu Shuangjin, general chief designer of the line’s Shaanxi section. Bridges are constructed to link tunnels. Protective shields have been placed at the mouths of the tunnels to keep wild animals from falling. During construction, the company avoided setting up temporary facilities in wildlife habitats. Dirt excavated from building tunnels and bridges was removed regularly and construction crews used low-noise equipment to avoid disturbing wildlife.
“During operation,” Luo Wangshu added, “trains are forbidden from using horns in wildlife habitats.”
Pointed out Lai Wenhong, “Only one kilometer of the high-speed rail traverses the reserve for the crested ibis. But 33 kilometers of protective nets have been built to minimize its influence on the vicinity,” Lai said.
Elaborated Luo Wangshu, “The 4-meter-high mesh on the sides of bridges higher than 10 meters will prevent the birds from flying into the path of trains.”
Responding to criticism
Chinese transportation corridor development in Africa has been extensively criticized for allegedly opening up habitat to bushmeat poaching and trafficking in the body parts of rare species. And China remains a major destination for elephant ivory, rhino horn, the bones and pelts of lions and leopards, turtles of every sort, and pangolin scales and whole carcasses.
Chinese zoos and aquariums are also acquiring wild-caught live animals from around the world, especially Africa, by the tens of thousands.
But China also has perhaps the largest and fastest-growing animal advocacy movement in the world, much of it focused on recovering an abundance and diversity of native wildlife matched by few other nations.
Even today, despite centuries of hunting, pollution, and habitat encroachment for human purposes such as farming, logging, mining, urban development, and roadbuilding, China boasts the third largest number of native mammals of any nation (562), the seventh largest numbers of native reptiles (403) and native amphibians (346), the eighth largest number of native birds (1,269), and claims nearly 5,000 native fish species.