“India ain’t big enough for both of us.”
KOLKATA, India––The Howrah-Mumbai Mail train in the wee hours of April 16, 2018 killed four elephants on the same stretch of track in Jharsuguda district, Odissa state, where two others died after falling into trackside ditches in separate incidents in September and October 2017.
The victims included the 25-year-old matriarch of the family, a 15-year-old male, a five-year-old-male, and a one-year-old female. The toll was the worst from a single collision since 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 crash came almost five years to the day after the Coromandel Express killed six elephants at Rambha, Ganjam district, in December 2012.
Poaching has killed 95 elephants, electrocution after becoming entangled in wires has killed 87, and trains have killed 22 in Odissa state since 2010.
National outrage over preventable deaths
Though elephant/train collisions have killed a fraction as many elephants as poaching and electrocutions, some of which involve electrified fences meant to keep elephants from raiding crops , the train/elephant incidents have generated national outrage.
Like the Jharsuguda deaths, they tend to come in areas where India Railways has ignored requests from wildlife agencies to run trains at slower speeds and take additional precautions at night, when elephants are most difficult to see.
For example, a speeding freight train running on tracks where India Railways had pledged to run no trains after dark on November 22, 2015 hit reportedly the 45th elephant to be killed by a train in West Bengal state since 2004––or the 50th, depending on whose count is cited, and the toll has climbed since then.
“It is surprising how the driver could not spot the tusker crossing the track, as there is no turn there,” Jaldapara National Park assistant wildlife warden Bimal Debnath told Pinak Priya Bhattacharya of the Times of India News Network. Debnath said he would attempt to bring charges against India Railways.
Similar efforts after many similar incidents, however, have brought few if any evident reductions in train-caused elephant deaths.
“The most tragic part of it is that persons at the helm of affairs are not really interested in sorting the problem out,” accused Jalpaiguri Science & Nature Club secretary Raja Raut.
The alleged lingering death of an elephant in the same district in May 2015, two years after the elephant was hit and crippled by a train, revived attention to the often lethal conflict between two deeply entrenched symbols of India: elephants and trains. Elephants have held symbolic status in Hinduism and Buddhism for more than 2,000 years. India Railways, the national rail carrier, has since 1853 culturally and economically linked modern India.
Vanishing from much of the rest of the world, wild elephants and packed passenger trains are emblematic of Indian national pride. And, ironically, among the most popular of the many Indian Railways logos are Bholu, an elephant holding up a lantern, like those used by station masters and track inspectors to warn railway engineers of hazards.
Introduced in 2002, Bholu the railway elephant was honored on a two-rupee coin a year later, and may be as familiar in India today as Mickey Mouse is in the United States.
Few but traumatic
The numbers of elephants killed by Indian trains are low, scarcely a threat to the species, and are statistically trivial compared to the roadkill carnage on Indian highways. India is believed to lead the world in vehicular-caused deaths of dogs and cattle, with no other nation close. The 2013 Indian human road death toll of 238,562 was six times higher than that of the U.S., second only to the 275,983 killed in China.
Other nations also have occasional elephant/train collisions, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. But train deaths of elephants tend to become nationally traumatic in India, in part because of the perception that the deaths could and should be wholly preventable.
Karnataka state, for example, with 20% of the wild elephants in India, has had no elephant/train fatalities in many years, making conspicuous efforts to avoid them, while year after year the corridor from Kolkata, West Bengal state to Guwahati, Assam state, has the most elephant/train fatalities in the nation.
“Measures implemented by Karnataka in the last five years have included digging and maintaining elephant-proof trenches of cumulative length of over 500 kilometers, installing and maintaining 600 kilometers of solar fencing, and keeping an active anti-depredation squad engaged for sending stray elephants back into forests,” reported Dhananjay Mahapatra for the Times of India News Network.
Elephant/train collisions were fewer before most of the tracks in rural areas were converted from narrow gauge to standard gauge, permitting trains to run at higher speeds.
Twenty-six elephants, for example, were killed between 1974 and 2004 along the 168-kilometer route between New Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar in West Bengal, where the elephant was killed on November 22, 2015.
The tracks were then changed to standard gauge, and the collision death rate accelerated from less than one per year to between four and five per year.
As more and more trains cross elephant habitat, while elephants more and more use railway rights-of-way as travel corridors, instead of densely trafficked roads, public perception at least is that elephant/train collisions are a growing problem, and are occurring because of alleged indifference by train operators and public officials.
The elephant/train issue further became a political football in 2014 when the government of West Bengal state proposed contracepting elephants to help reduce elephant/human conflict, including the risk of elephant/train collisions. The scheme was killed by the Supreme Court of India as an alleged violation of Indian wildlife protection law.
Malampuzha Dam case
The dead elephant in the May 2015 case––not an ivory poaching victim because his tusks were intact–– was found near the Malampuzha Dam, alongside the tracks between Walayar and Kanjikode, on a route linking the Tamil Nadu state cities of Palakkad and Coimbatore.
“While forest officials claim that the elephant died after it was caught in monsoon floodwaters,” summarized K.A. Shaji of The Hindu on July 9, 2015, “environmental activists say no rain capable of washing away an elephant was witnessed in the region.”
“After it was injured,” local activist P.S. Panicker told Shaji, “the animal was always found close to the Malampuzha Dam. It used to enter the reservoir to get relief from the festering wounds. In the beginning, the authorities said they provided it medicine concealing it in bananas. Later, they said they administered injections using toy guns. They finally said no treatment could save the elephant.”
Charged S. Guruvayurappan, South India coordinator for the Wildlife Protection Society of India, “The rail stretch at Walayar has turned into a death trap with 25 elephants killed in the past ten years.”
Recounted Shaji, “Trains plying on the Coimbatore-Palakkad route now run at 30 kilometers per hour in the Walayar area during daytime,” or about 20 miles per hour, “and below 25 kilometers per house at night to avoid hitting elephants. Electric fences erected on both sides of the tracks have been ineffective, as elephants pulled them down during power shutdowns. Lack of maintenance of the fences has also contributed to the situation.”
Manoj Sinha, federal minister of state for railways, was prematurely optimistic in February 2015 that the preventive measures were succeeding. Twenty-six elephants were killed by trains in India in 2013, and 51 from 2007 through 2012, Sinha reported, but only nine in 2014, plus two in the first two months of 2015.
Seven elephants killed in one crash
Increasing in frequency for at least a decade, elephant/train collisions burst into public view and political controversy after a speeding freight train on the night of September 22, 2010 killed seven elephants in the Moraghat forest of West Bengal, raising the toll in elephant/train collisions since 1987 to more than 150.
The speed of trains alone was then believed to be the major factor causing elephant/train collisions.
“A speed check on the railway is underway,” the Indian Express reported on October 7, 2010 from Guwahati, the Assam state capital. “A speed detection gun was applied on a train in an elephant corridor yesterday at Deepor Beel in the presence of forest officials and animal charity officials.”
Guwahati wildlife division chief S.K. Seal Sharma “said the equipment was handy and effective and his division was ready to procure it. The department has previously had to rely on the railways for monitoring the speed of trains,” the Express said.
The use of the speed gun was introduced by Azam Siddiqui, a TV news camera man who had happened upon a web site describing an inexpensive laser speed gun routinely used by U.S. law enforcement agencies to check the speed of automobiles, and by baseball scouts and coaches to measure the velocity of pitches. Speed guns were at the time almost unknown in India. A PETA/India grant funded the acquisition from the U.S. of the speed gun used in the October 2010 tests.
But preventing elephant/train collisions proved to be more complicated than just limiting speed.
Indian Express columnist Jay Mazoomdaar, warned by Wildlife Trust of India staff member Ashok Kumar that “Speeding might not be the real issue,” personally inspected the track where the most elephant deaths had occurred, from Malbazar to Alipurduar via Rajabhatkhawa.
“Elephants could walk across the track almost anywhere along that stretch,” Mazoomdaar wrote. “If one wanted to limit speed, trains would have to ply slow throughout. Traveling from Siliguri to Alipurduar would take double the time.”
The government of West Bengal commissioned the Wildlife Trust of India to find a way to protect elephants without delaying trains, Mazoomdaar wrote.
The WTI recommendations may be helping, but this is statistically not yet evident, and just one major accident every few years could erase the appearance of progress.
Concern has arisen meanwhile over the proposed route of a new railway meant to link points in West Bengal and Assam to Bhutan, an isolated Himalayan nation which until now has had no railway service.
The nearest station at present, served by the Indian Northeast Frontier Railway, is about 12 miles from the Bhutan border. Pledged by then-Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh during a May 2008 state visit to Bhutan, and funded in the 2010 Indian budget, the route to Bhutan is still under construction.
“Not an inch of the proposed line will be constructed on the land of the Forest Department, but it will pass very close to the Jaigaon forest area and a vital elephant corridor,” Buxa Tiger Reserve field director R.P. Saini told The Hindu.
While elephant/train collisions attract by far the most notice, the Indian train toll on wildlife also includes other species. A nine-year-old tiger, for example, was hit in November 2014 circa 4 a.m. amid dense fog between the Ramnagar and Kashipur stations in Uttarakhand.
Similar accidents occasionally occur in the U.S., Canada, and Russia, most often involving moose, elk, and bears who use railroad rights-of-way as migration corridors when snow is deep.
Such an incident near Norilsk, Russia, in early December 2014 brought a criminal investigation, according to the Western Siberian Transport Prosecutor’s Office, after a video camera caught the train crew laughing as they apparently intentionally hit a bear who was running down the tracks ahead of the train.
“The train drivers could face up to two years behind bars on animal cruelty charges,” reported Ian Hughes of The Mirror, based on a Govorit Moskva radio news report. “Luckily, the bear was found alive and well after a search party of local security services set out to look for the animal. Pyotr Liholitov, a spokesman for rail company Norilsk Nickel, told Govorit Moskva that ‘The moldboard on the locomotive, which is used to clean the tracks from snow, just threw the bear off the tracks.’”
Turkish engineer saved his ass
The actions of the train crew in the Russian case contrasted with those of Turkish train operator Veli Sener on November 17, 2014, when he encountered a donkey who had been tied to the track.
“Unaware that the donkey was tied to the rail, Sener first tried to scare away the unlucky animal with the train’s whistle,” the Doğan News Agency reported, “but then hit the brakes and managed to stop three meters short of the donkey. After stopping the train, Şener freed the animal, cutting the ropes on its legs. An investigation has been opened, but as yet there are no suspects in the case.”